Past Tense, Future Perfect
By Anne Laughlin
This is the second and concluding part to the sequel to House Shopping. You will not be lost if you read this without having read the earlier story, but it helps in your understanding of the characters. Please send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is for Linda
Peg turned away from her window and opened her e-mail program. She sent her assistant a message letting her know she was going out of town for a couple of days and then began gathering her things to leave. She hoped that if she made it to the Andersonville house in the next half hour or so she wouldn't risk running into Allison. She knew Allison was at a closing, and she desperately wanted to avoid her questions. Peg knew that Allison already read her like a book, a fact that both thrilled and mortified Peg. Never before had she been so vulnerable around another woman. Each time Peg attempted to hide sadness, anxiety, depression, or despair behind what she thought was a perfectly effective poker face, Allison had seen right through her. She then would manage to get Peg to admit to whatever was really going on behind the mask. And each time this happened Peg would have a moment of feeling like she couldn't possibly stay with someone who insisted on stripping her of her privacy, followed by tears of joy and relief that she'd finally found someone who was willing to know her, who she was willing to have know her.
But this time was different. Allison could not find out about this nightmare. Peg needed time to figure out how to handle the situation, whether it was going to mean staying in Chicago and paying the blackmail without telling anyone, including Allison, about the situation. Or whether it meant something else – leaving Allison, her job, her new city, and trying to find a new life where Braddock could not find her. She needed time to think through how serious his threat to her was. As Peg picked up her briefcase to leave there was a quick knock and the door to her office swung open. Allison strode in.
"Hi, darling. Carly wasn't out front so I took the liberty of coming straight in." Allison came up to Peg and touched her arm, looking up into her eyes. "I'm glad I caught you before you left."
"What are you doing here?" Peg asked. She backed away from Allison and leaned against her desk.
"Well, nice to see you, too." Allison smile wryly. "I just wanted to say goodbye to my girlfriend. I miss you when you're not beside me at night."
"I'll only be gone two days. Maybe three." Peg looked into her briefcase and fiddled with some papers. She was frantically trying to find it in herself to act like a busy lawyer, rather than a deer caught in the headlights. She wasn't surprised when Allison took her gently by the chin and turned her face towards her.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" Allison lowered her hand from Peg's face and rested it on her arm.
"I swear to you that nothing's wrong." Peg turned back to the briefcase and fastened the clasp. "I'm just frustrated by this damn case. And I have to leave so I can catch that flight to New York."
"I've not known you all that long, Peg, but I've never known you to lie to me. There's something going on with you. I know there is."
Peg stood up straight and started past Allison toward the door. She turned around and said, "You know, you do have wonderful instincts, but they're not infallible. I've told you what's on my mind and I'm sorry if it's not sexy or dramatic enough for you. Now, if you'll excuse me I have to get going."
Peg got half way through the door before Allison's voice stopped her. "And I've never known you to be mean or sarcastic either. Don't walk out on me, Peg. We need to talk this through."
"No, what we need, what I need is for you to back off. Sometimes you expect too much, Allison."
Peg saw the look of shock and confusion on Allison's face before she turned once again and walked out the door. She strode briskly to the elevator bank and managed to board without Allison catching up to her. As the door closed she breathed deeply and tried to keep the feeling of panic from overwhelming her.
Allison herself took a deep breath and tried to figure out what had just happened. She didn't have enough facts to even begin speculating, but she knew in her heart that Peg was not worried about the case she'd been working on. Whatever was making her withdraw was clearly personal, and serious enough that Peg was lying to her to keep her off the trail. The thought of Peg leaving town without there being any resolution between them sent Allison into action, and she quickly headed out the door herself. She saw Carly sitting down at her desk outside of Peg's office, putting her bag into a desk drawer.
"Hi, Carly," Allison said, coming up behind the young woman.
"Oh, Hi, Allison. Is Peg in there?"
"No, Peg just left. I think she's headed out of town."
"She is?" Carly looked perplexed. "I didn't know anything about that."
"Yeah, well, she says something came up with the albuterol case and she has to go to New York."
"She did? Huh. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I wonder if this has anything to do with that phone call she got this morning." Carly looked at her notepad and put her finger on a scrawled name.
"Who called this morning?"
Carly shifted a little in her seat. "I probably shouldn't say. Peg wouldn't want me talking about anything that goes on here."
"I think that's true as a general rule, but there's something peculiar going on and I'm a little worried about her," Allison said.
"Well, to tell you the truth, I am too. This morning she got a call from some guy named Jim Braddock, who was a real asshole and he insisted on talking to Peg. I interrupted her conference with an expert witness and I was surprised when she said she would take the call. She told me to take off for a few hours, even though it was only the middle of the morning, and when I asked her if everything was okay she only said something about it being some old business that she needed to take care of."
"Who is Jim Braddock?"
"Don't know." Carly looked nervously at Allison. "Is Peg going to be mad that I told you all that."
"Don't worry. I promise to protect you from Peg." Allison smiled at Carly, despite the fact that she was now truly worried about Peg. "Why don't you write down that guy's name and number for me."
Carly handed a slip of paper to Allison, who hefted her bag and headed down the hall.
"I'm going to find out what's going on, so you hold down the fort here, okay?"
"Good luck, Allison."
Allison jumped in a cab and headed to her office to pick up her car. As the cab hit the brakes on Michigan Avenue, she called Patrick Flannery, a private investigator she'd worked with when she was practicing law and on several occasions since. He picked up on the first ring.
"Patrick, it's Allison Mitchell."
"Allison. Good to hear from you. Real estate treating you well?"
"Very well. It's the rest of my life that's a little rocky," Allison said. "I'm wondering if you have the time right now to get as much information on someone as you can."
"I have about half an hour before I have to leave here," Patrick said.
"That's about what I have. I only have a name and a number, absolutely nothing else, other than the fact that this guy has some tie to my girlfriend, Peg Ryan."
"What, do you think they're sleeping together or something?" Patrick asked.
"No. God, that hadn't even entered my mind. I don't think that's it, but thanks very much for putting the idea in the back of my head. Whatever the connection is, it isn't good news for Peg and I'm trying to figure out how to help her."
"Okay, give me the info and I'll get right on it."
Allison hung up after giving Braddock's name and number to Patrick. By the time the cab dropped her off at her car and she was almost to her home in Andersonville, Patrick called back.
"That was fast, Patrick."
"Well, computers are amazing things. And they just get faster and tell us more all the time."
"Don't remind me. It gives me the creeps. What did you find on this guy?" Allison pulled her car over so she could take notes.
"Jim Braddock is a lawyer in New York and New Jersey. He's 49, divorced, attended Yale Law School, was in the New York office of the U.S. District Attorney for quite a few years after law school, and he now has his own practice. There isn't much on him, and the only thing of real interest is the fact that he filed for bankruptcy last year."
"Huh. That is interesting." Allison tapped her notepad with her pencil. "Thanks, Patrick. Send your bill to me."
Allison pulled into her garage and saw Peg just entering from the house with a suitcase in hand. Allison knew she only had a moment to decide how to approach Peg, who looked both startled and annoyed at seeing Allison.
"Hi, Peg. You're going to want to come back in the house with me. I have some information it's important you hear." Allison opened the garage door and made as if to shoo Peg through.
"What the hell are you up to? I'm not going back inside, Allison. I have a plane to catch."
"There's a plane to LaGuardia every hour, so don't try to pull that on me. Listen, I know you're annoyed with me right now but just suck it up for a minute. I have to tell you something and it's important to you and to us that you hear it. Now, come on." Allison reached for Peg's suitcase and took it in her hand, smiling to herself as she felt Peg's grip tighten and then, finally, let go. Allison looked in Peg's eyes and saw that beneath the set look on her face was someone who really didn't know what to do. "Come on, darling."
Peg gave Allison a final exasperated look and swept out of the garage. She entered the back of the house and sat down at the kitchen table and Allison sat across from her.
"Well?" said Peg.
"Before I say anything I just want to ask you again to tell me what's been going on today. You know you stink at hiding things from me, and it's obvious something has upset you."
"Jesus, we just had this conversation an hour ago. I told you there's nothing to tell you," Peg was nearly squirming. She didn't even realize how transparent she was.
"Okay, here goes." Allison said. "This is the only information I've been able to piece together. This morning some guy named Jim Braddock called you and you terminated an important session with an expert witness to talk with him. Apparently, it concerned some old, unfinished business. Sometime after this conversation you call me and say you're going out of town unexpectedly, and you sound cold and removed and not at all yourself. Then I come to see you and we fight because you feel I'm in your business too much. I sweet talk Carly into giving me what information she has, which is how I find out the call was from this Braddock fellow. I called a private investigator I have a lot of trust in and he quickly comes up with a short bio on Jim Braddock. I imagine you really think I'm too much in your business right now."
Peg stared at Allison. "Actually, I feel like I'm suffocating."
"Why?" Allison sputtered. "Do you believe I care so little for you that I'll ignore it when you are in pain, possibly in trouble?"
"It feels more like you don't trust me to conduct my life myself. It feels controlling, and I don't respond well to that." Peg leaned back in her chair, looking sad to discover this side of Allison.
Allison stood up and paced once around the kitchen. She stopped in front of the table and addressed Peg. "I'm going to try to explain myself here and hope to god that it paves the way for us to understand each other a little better. I'm in love with you, I feel like I've met my life partner in you, and I share so much in common with you. But we are also fundamentally different in some important ways. The main one being that I'm an open book and you're a closed book, and right now that's not working so well. Normally I can completely respect that you need to reveal things to me in your own time or with gentle nudging on my part. And I see you slowly coming to realize that it's safe to do this with me, that we can't really have a relationship if you stay as closed up as you are apparently used to being. But there is something going on today and something I see in your attitude that has me very concerned. If there is something big going on with you, Peg, you have to tell me. I'm guessing that there's something you want to protect me from, or keep me from knowing about you, but I'm telling you that we cannot be partners in this life together if you don't trust me to love you."
Peg turned her head and stared out the kitchen window into the back yard. She thought about the flower bed she had been working on. It seemed unbearably sad to think she wouldn't be able to finish it. That all of their plans, large and small, were for naught. To her horror, she felt a lump start in her throat. There was no way she could tell Allison what she had done all those years ago, and what she was being forced to do now as a consequence. No matter what she says now, Allison wouldn't feel the same about her.
"Allison, I'm going to tell you this one more time. There's nothing going on. Jim Braddock is a former colleague and law school class mate and he was just calling to catch up."
"There's a slim chance that what you say is true, but every bone in my body tells me otherwise." Allison stood staring at Peg, her hands on her hips as she continued. "I am about to explode with frustration and am basically ready to kill you for being so stupid. I know you love me, I can feel it when we're together and I know I'm not wrong. But you don't know how to trust that love. You have to trust me, Peg, or we have nothing. I won't live with another partner who isn't honest with me." Allison sat back down and leaned across the table to take Peg's hands. "Please don't do this to us."
Peg did not remove her hands from Allison's, but she did not look her in the eye either. She waited a long time, looking at their hands, before raising her eyes to Allison's and saying, "I don't know really what it means to trust love. It's not something I've ever experienced. I love you, and because I love you I'm terrified to tell you about what came up today. I know you won't think the same of me as you do now." Allison managed to hold her tongue as Peg took another long pause. "But the thing is, I know I don't really have a choice anymore. If I don't tell you, you've said that our relationship will end. It seems a certainty to me that it will end whether I tell you or not, and that thought is the most devastating thing of all. I'm not sure I can ever feel any enthusiasm for life if you weren't a part of it. So, if there's any chance of us continuing if I share this with you, then it's worth doing."
Allison felt weak with relief and managed an encouraging smile. "I'm so glad. There's nothing you can tell me that's going to make me leave your side."
"Well, we'll see. Why don't we make some coffee? This is going to take awhile." And for the next hour Peg tried to explain to Allison what her life had been like and what happened with Jenna and Braddock. Allison did not interrupt, though hundreds of different thoughts and questions were racing through her mind. When Peg finished her story, Allison finally opened her mouth.
"I think you're neglecting a crucial bit from story."
Peg smiled limply and said "And what would that be?"
"That you then got sober. Given what you've just told me, that seems all the more courageous. Just as trying to act in Jenna's best interests was courageous."
"Allison, I want you to be dead truthful with me now. Can you honestly tell me that you don't think I'm horrible scum for acting the way I did?"
"What I honestly think is that telling Jenna the name of the witness was not a good thing to do, but that the you have punished yourself far more than anyone else ever could have."
"So what?" Peg looked mystified.
"So it's time to let this go. Let's figure out what to do about this Braddock guy and get on with our lives."
"Do we have to figure all of that out right now?" Peg asked. "I'm shattered." Allison came over and sat in Peg's lap, running her hands through Peg's floppy hair.
"No, I don't think we could figure it all out right now," Allison leaned over and kissed Peg softly, holding the gentle touch until both women began to explore each other's mouths with lips and teeth and tongues, tentatively, then passionately. Breathlessly. When they came up for air Peg pulled Allison close. "I don't know why you love me," she whispered fiercely, "but I believe that you do. And that's an unimaginable gift to me." Peg clutched Allison to her, and Allison could tell that she was trying to hold back tears.
"Come on, sweetheart, let's run a bath. We're going to glue you back together, good as new." And for the moment, Peg was content to have Allison lead the way.
Allison watched as Peg's hand went below the surface and made it's way between her legs. Allison was leaning back against Peg, her arms resting on the outside of Peg's thighs, Peg's arms were wrapped around Allison's waist. The huge claw foot tub held them both comfortably, and the water was just starting to cool after fifteen minutes of laying together in peaceful silence. The only light came from the bedroom across the hall. As Peg's hand started to caress the inside of Allison's thighs, Allison gasped. "What are you doing? I thought you were shattered."
"Not totally shattered. I've been revived." Her hand found its inevitable destination and gently explored Allison above and below, inside and out. "Actually, I've been more than revived. I've been redeemed. You have loved me, even knowing how I cannot love myself. And I do love you so much."
Allison was trying to concentrate on what Peg was saying, but all she could focus on was what Peg was doing. "Would you please hold on to whatever terribly important thing it is you're saying until you finish making love to me? You might as well be speaking Urdu right now."
"Gladly." Peg helped Allison out of the tub and lovingly dried her off with the towel warming on the nearby radiator. Then she led Allison to their bed where she slowly covered her with kisses. Her tenderness turned into fire as her desire for Allison became fierce, her drive now to possess this woman she finally admitted to needing, admitted even to trusting. She knew that Allison loved her despite her flaws, something Peg had never really believed possible before.
Peg draped herself over Allison and found her throat with her lips and her teeth, sucking and nipping just enough to hurt in a delicious way. Peg's leg found its way between Allison's, and they both began to move against each other without a second's hesitation. Their moans became indistinguishable until Peg moved down Allison's body, with Allison quickly clamping her hand onto Peg's head, pushing her down further.
"Please, hurry," Allison said, raising her head to look down at Peg as her lips and tongue found Allison's clitoris. Allison's hips immediately began to rise and buck and she cried out as Peg grabbed her and held her fast against her. Every bit of Peg's love and energy and skill was focused on driving Allison nearly mad with arousal until Allison finally cried out that she was coming. Peg slipped two fingers deep inside, keeping her tongue where it was, trying to keep Allison close as her body thrashed with the power of her orgasm. When Allison began to quiet, Peg made her way back up beside her, holding her close, kissing the lone tear that made its way down Allison's cheek.
"Why are you crying, sweetheart?" Peg asked.
"I don't know, really. Because I feel extraordinarily close to you, I guess."
"I feel that, too." Peg kissed her again and smiled. "But I still have a big fucking problem."
"No, we have a big fucking problem, though I have some ideas on that. It may not be as big as it sounds right now."
"What do you mean?" Peg asked, shifting up to lean against a pillow, settling Allison under her arm.
"I don't think I told you in the middle of our fight that one thing my PI friend discovered about Mr. Braddock is that he filed for bankruptcy a year or so ago. I find that significant."
"Well, I guess. I mean it would explain why Braddock was motivated to blackmail me. Even with what he's got on me, blackmail is a pretty desperate act. But I don't see how that increases our leverage" Peg said.
"It just occurs to me that if Braddock had trouble controlling his finances in the recent past, it seems likely he would have had similar trouble back at the time of the leak itself. Wouldn't the need for money be a motivation for him to sell that information to whoever ordered the hit on the witness?"
Peg was silent for a minute, staring across the room as she absently caressed Allison's arm. "Admittedly, my brain was mush back then, so it may not have been accurate in the least, but it was my strong feeling at the time that Braddock was not the one who gave the information to whoever put out the hit on Scarpelli. I just didn't consider that he had the motivation, and I really didn't think he had the balls for it. Still don't."
"Who did you think did it, then?" Allison asked.
"I just didn't know. And I didn't think about it much. Once I saw that Jenna had a sick child and was supporting both him and her grandmother, I was worried that Jenna would be scapegoated for the leak. She had clear motivation, and she had access to mob contacts through her work on the case."
"Braddock had the same access, if not more so. Didn't he?"
"Yes," Peg conceded. "But no motivation."
"Unless he was in financial trouble then as well."
"Oh, god, I hate this," Peg moaned. "My brain feels like mush, just like it did back then. I don't know what to do."
Allison scooted herself up and looked at Peg. "We don't have to figure anything out right now. Just stay here with me tonight and we'll figure out a plan tomorrow."
Peg grinned at her. "Okay."
"God, you're so easy now." Allison said. "What happened to all that stubbornness?"
"You've completely conquered me."
"Yes," Peg said, as she pulled Allison over on top of her. "And to the victor go the spoils."
Allison laughed. "Actually, when you listen to that sentence, you have to wonder. I mean, does 'spoils' sound like a prize?"
"Quit talking, my conqueror, and claim me." Peg pulled Allison closer to her until Allison's lips found hers and all talk ended.
As Peg slept in the next morning, Allison called an old acquaintance. Johnny Bartoni was a Chicago mobster who had once served on the board of directors of a union pension fund. The fund had been investigated by the FBI and also sued by union pensioners who discovered that the pensions they had counted on were simply not there for them upon retirement. The investments selected by the board had largely been Las Vegas casinos and hotels, many of them start-up projects that never went beyond the planning stage. Allison had been a lawyer at the law firm that ended up defending the members of the board of directors in the civil suit, and she and Johnny had struck up an unlikely friendship. She had been assigned to prepare him for his deposition and they spent many hours together reviewing documents and testimony. At the end of the lengthy trial the pension fund's insurance had to pay a hefty jury award, but the individual directors did not. Allison had never really thought they'd get such a favorable result for the board members, and neither did anyone else. That they did endeared Allison to Johnny Bartoni, and now she was hoping for a favor.
The phone was picked up on the first ring. "Bartoni," came a raspy greeting.
"Johnny, it's Allison Mitchell."
"Allie! Girl of my dreams. How are you my darling?" Johnny's rasp now carried a lilt to it, but no less rasp.
"I'm pretty good, Johnny. Am I disturbing your morning?"
"No, no. Just sitting here in my dressing gown, waiting for that Ellen Degeneres to come on."
"You mean her talk show?" Allison asked.
"Yeah. I love that woman. Very classy, but cute, you know? And she doesn't do any of that dirty humor. I like that."
"Geez, Johnny. I didn't realize you were such a prude," Allison said.
"I'm a gentleman, not a prude. Now, I know you called for something other than my TV habits. What's going on with you?"
"Well, the fact is that I need your input on something. It has to do with the woman I'm in a relationship with. I love her a lot."
"My advice is, don't fuck it up."
"Yeah, well, that much I know. But there's a little bit of trouble in the form of a lawyer she used to work with years ago who's now trying to blackmail her."
Allison outlined the story for Johnny while listening with one ear for any sign of Peg coming downstairs. "So I was wondering if it was possible for you to use some of your contacts to find out who fed the information about the protected witness to whoever made the hit. I have a feeling it was the very guy who is blackmailing Peg, but if we knew for sure it would be much easier to call his bluff."
"Is this girl of yours still boozing?"
Allison laughed at Johnny's protective tone. "No, John. She quit drinking years ago."
"Okay, then. I don't want you hooked up with an alkie. They're just a pain in the ass."
"The only pain in the ass here is this Braddock guy," Allison said. "Do you think you can get the information for me?"
Allison could hear Johnny lighting a cigarette. The theme song to Ellen Degeneres' show came on in the background. "Will you look at that," Johnny said. "She's riding one of those unicycles onto the stage, you know those motorized ones?"
"The Segways?" Allison asked.
"Yeah, one of those. I guess it's not a unicycle. Anyway, she always comes on stage doing something different." Johnny paused in appreciation. "She's a clever gal."
Allison did her best to be patient, but she was close to screaming in frustration. "I agree. I've always admired her." Which was true, but Allison really did not want to be talking about Ellen right now.
"Of course you admire her," Johnny enthused. "She's your people. You've got to stick together, like a family." This, apparently, was where Johnny the mobster felt solidarity with Allison the lesbian.
"Well, I'm hoping it's that sense of loyalty and interconnection that will produce the information I'm interested in, Johnny." Allison tried to steer them back on track.
"I'll give it a try, but I should warn you that I'm not as connected as I used to be. Retirement's the same no matter what line of work you're in. Once you're out of the work place you're soon forgotten. But there's a few people I can call. I still have some friends in New York."
"How long do you think you'll need?"
"Impossible to say," Johnny said. "Give me today to make the calls and get the word out, and hopefully we'll hear something back tomorrow."
"I hope so. I'm not sure how much time we have with this guy," Allison said, the worry apparent in her voice.
"Do you want me to have someone go talk with him? He can't be too hard to find."
Allison barked out a laugh. "Jesus, no. A talk with one of your acquaintances can only mean more strain on our overburdened health care system. But thanks for the offer. I'll wait to hear back from you."
"I'm glad to do it for you, Allison. And that should bring us about even, don't you think?"
"You never owed me a favor, Johnny. I was just doing my job when I worked on that lawsuit. I'd like to think that now you're acting out of friendship."
"And you'd be right to think that. Now, go be with your troublemaker girlfriend and I'll get to work."
Allison was pouring coffee when she heard Peg come into the kitchen. She couldn't hold back the guffaw that flew out of her mouth when she saw her. Peg was dressed in flannel boxer shorts, tank top and grey rag socks. Her hair was sticking straight out of her head in a million different directions and she had a huge mottled crease on her cheek from her pillow. Her lips seemed a little puffy from the work out they'd gotten the night before. Allison pulled her close and wrapped her arms around Peg's neck. "It's so hard to resist you when you look like this, " she said.
"Like what?" Peg grumbled.
"Like a sex goddess."
"The bar is pretty low for you, isn't it?" Peg smiled down at Allison and drew her close. "What have you been up to this morning? I heard you on the phone."
"Just some more information gathering." Allison told Peg about Johnny Bartoni. She watched as Peg moved away to pour herself some coffee.
"I remember Bartoni's name from when I was at the D.A.'s office," Peg said. "He ran a lot of the legitimate businesses here in Chicago, didn't he?"
"Yeah, he was the front man, which is how he ended up on the pension fund board. But he clearly answered to the organization here. I'm hoping he can still pull a few strings and find out who to talk to about something that happened a long time ago."
Peg sipped her coffee for awhile and studied Allison. "There's something else we should talk about that we didn't touch on last night."
"Alright." Allison sat down and gave Peg her full attention, after first finger combing Peg's hair. "I can't look at you with your hair like that."
Peg sat across from Allison and sighed. "It occurred to me at some point between Braddock's phone call and now that his reappearance in my life is going to change things no matter how we end up dealing with the blackmail situation."
"What do you mean exactly?"
"Well, say your friend Bartoni finds out that Braddock was the one that sold the information to the mob. That means that I have an obligation as an officer of the court to let the authorities know, especially since I was his source for the information. And that means I will lose my law license and may possibly be prosecuted."
"Why would you have to turn him in? Why not just use the threat of turning him in to get him to call off the blackmail attempt?"
"Well, the first reason is that I want this thing over with. If Braddock is the bad guy here . . ."
"We already know he's the bad guy," interrupted Allison.
"If he's the source of the leak to the mob, then I can end this. I don't want anything more to do with him. In addition, it's the right thing to do. He's directly responsible for someone losing their life, and I'm indirectly responsible."
"Well, I'm a little confused about something. If you feel you need to act as a matter of responsibility, why didn't you go to the authorities back then?"
"That had to do with Jenna. I was really afraid that she'd get caught holding the bag. It was more wrong of me to get her embroiled in my fuck up than it was wrong to not go to the authorities to admit I'd shared the name with someone not authorized to know it." Peg grimaced as she looked down into her coffee. "I know it looks self serving. After I got sober I had to work through this question all over again, with a clearer head than the first time. And remarkably I came to the same conclusion. If admitting a wrong causes injury to others, it's really only self serving to admit the wrong."
"And what if Johnny finds out that someone else was the source of the leak?"
"I guess I then have to figure out how to handle the blackmail threat. I need to do a little research and find out if Jenna would still be in danger of prosecution at this late date, and I probably should try to talk to her as well. Do you think that PI of yours could try to track her down?"
"Sure," Allison said. "Why don't you do a little research on how much trouble you could be in also?"
"That can't be a factor in any decision I make. You understand that, don't you?" Peg looked at Allison with hope rather than the stony façade she'd worn for so long.
"We're just gathering facts, darling, as good lawyers do. Then we'll figure out a game plan. I won't try to influence you away from what you believe is right."
"I'll head out to New York tomorrow morning. I'm scheduled to see Braddock at 6:30, but I'd like to get into town early enough to talk to Jenna, if she's still in the area."
"Alright. How about this?" Allison pulled a pen and paper over and started making a list. "I'll do the legal research on the statute of limitations on something like this and I'll call Pat Flannery and get him on locating Jenna. And I'll follow up with Johnny later today to see if he's made any progress."
"And what will I be doing, Chief?"
"You're going to try to find out from anyone you still know at the D.A.'s office whether they would even bother to prosecute the source of the leak if the information was given to them. And you're going to get some money in a bag in case we need to buy a little more time from Braddock. I'd just get $20,000 or so and let him think you needed more time to liquidate some assets. Then you're going to take care of whatever you need to at the office to get that out of your hair for a few days. Then you're going to come home and make love to me again."
Peg leaned over and watched as Allison wrote "Make love to Allison" on her side of the To Do list. "Remarkable. We've never worked together, but I can see we'd be great if we did. I wouldn't change anything on that list. Well, maybe one thing."
"What's that?" Allison asked.
"I'd move "Make love to Allison" to the top of my list," Peg said as she pulled Allison up by the hand and led her back to the bedroom.
Peg looked down at the address scribbled on the back of one of her business cards. Allison's private investigator had come up with a new address for Jenna Clark, who was now living in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. She checked her messages one more time to see if there was any word from Allison on what Johnny Bartoni may have come up with, but there was none. It was only 5:30 in the afternoon, and Peg doubted Jenna would be home from work yet, but when she found the building she asked the doorman to call up to check. After giving her name, the doorman directed her to a third floor apartment. Jenna was waiting by her open door when Peg stepped off the elevator.
"Peg, what in the world brings you here? It's got to be fifteen years since I saw you." Jenna stepped aside and gestured Peg in. She then led her into the studio sized apartment and turned to face her. Jenna had aged noticeably, her 44 years looking older than Peg's 49. She'd put on quite a bit of weight, and there was a heavy dullness about her. Peg had a hard time remembering the attractive and bright woman she had worked with and been drawn to.
"Jenna, I know it must seem strange that I'm here. I'm visiting New York for a few days and just wanted to follow up on a few things that felt a little unfinished to me."
"Unfinished? What was unfinished, Peg?" Jenna slapped her leg and laughed. "Wait a minute. You're not talking about the night you passed out on me, are you? Is that what you want to finish?"
"Uh, no. I think that moment's passed us by."
"Yeah, I'd say." Jenna got up and headed for the kitchen. "Can I get you a beer? I was just about to have one."
"No, thanks. That's something that's changed since I saw you last. I quit drinking a couple years after I left the D.A.'s office."
Jenna came back in the room and contemplated Peg as she leaned against a wall, holding her beer bottle. "That's cool. Better for you and more for me." Peg looked around the room. Certain telltale signs were painting a picture for her; the cluttered room, the empty wine and beer bottles on a variety of surfaces, Jenna's unkempt appearance where once she had been perfectly groomed.
"Jenna, one of the things I wanted to ask you is about your son. I never heard anything."
"Well, he died," Jenna said, coming to sit down on the opposite end of the couch from Peg. "He died when he was 10 and he left me all alone with about $100,000 of medical bills."
"I'm really sorry to hear that. I'm sure it was a terrible time for you." Peg watched as Jenna drained most of her beer and set the bottle down.
"It was terrible, but I'm not going to whine about it. My mother died just before he did. The whole thing was fucking horrible. But, you go on."
Peg's cell phone rang and she looked at the caller ID to see Allison's number. "I'm sorry, Jenna. I have to take this call."
"Don't worry about it. I'll grab another beer."
Peg walked over to the window and spoke into the phone. "I'm at Jenna's right now, so I can't stay on the phone long. Do you have anything for me?"
"I have a hello for you, unlike some people," Allison said.
Peg sighed. "Sorry. Hello. Now, what do you have."
"Well, it's quite interesting. I can give you the long version later, but the upshot is that Johnny's informants led him to the man who bought the information. He's currently serving a life term for an unrelated murder. He described a person very much like Jenna as the one who sold them the information that led to the hit of Scarpelli."
"What?" Peg stared out the window, a little disoriented. "How sure do you think we can be about this?"
"Pretty sure. The described her as someone who worked in the D.A.'s office and who had a sick kid."
"Shit," Peg sighed again.
"It's hard to tell what qualifies as good news in this mess," Allison said.
"I'm pretty sure this isn't good news." Peg heard Jenna enter the room again. "Listen, I'm going to go. I'll call you as soon as I can." She shut off the phone before Allison said more and turned to face Jenna.
"Is that your girlfriend checking up on you?" Jenna said with a smirk.
"Yeah, that's her," Peg smiled. "She has a way of getting right in my business."
"That can't be good," said Jenna. "Doesn't seem like the kind of woman you'd hook up with."
"It did take some getting used to," Peg said as she sat down again. "But the truth of the matter is that she loves me and she makes me face things head on, and that's made me a better person."
Jenna rolled her eyes and drank more beer. "If you say so."
"No, it's true. Here's an example. You remember Jim Braddock, right?"
"That asshole. I can't tell you how many times he pawed me at the office." Jenna seemed to shudder at the memory.
"Braddock overheard me telling you the witness name and location that night at Halliday's. He used that knowledge to force me to leave the D.A.'s office."
Jenna looked surprised. "He was blackmailing you?"
"Yes. He would keep quiet about what he heard if I would leave the office and recommend him as my replacement."
"That seems like pretty tame blackmail." Jenna was watching Peg carefully now.
"I suppose it was. I wouldn't really know. But I met his demands mainly because I was so messed up at that time in my life and I just couldn't think clearly. I also didn't want any suspicion to fall on you."
"So you were a noble drunk."
"You've got it half right, anyway. Earlier this week I heard from Braddock for the first time since this all happened. Perhaps he consulted with your blackmail coach, because this time his demand has more teeth in it. Two million dollars spread over a year's time, which is a significant amount even for a spoiled law partner like myself."
Jenna's eyes narrowed at this. "Did you agree to pay him?"
"I haven't paid anything yet. Once Allison got the whole story out of me we got to work figuring out just what our options might be. For instance, Allison had the connections to find out whether it was Braddock himself who sold the information to the people who had Scarpelli killed. Obviously, with that information, we would refuse to pay the blackmail"
Jenna's beer stopped half way to her mouth. "What did Allison find out?"
"That's what she just called to tell me. And it's information that changes everything for me." Peg stared at Jenna. "Apparently it was you, Jenna. The man you sold the information to described someone who could only be you."
Jenna started to feign outrage and stopped before anything came out of her mouth. "What exactly does this mean to me?"
"You're not denying that it was you?" Peg asked.
"I'm not admitting or denying. I'm just asking what your understanding is of what this means to me so many years after the fact."
Peg shrugged. "I don't really know. I think the D.A.'s office would have the option to prosecute you if they chose to pursue it. All I really know is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go meet Braddock in a few minutes and let him know I won't be paying his blackmail. I'm going to go to the D.A.'s office in the morning and tell them exactly what happened, and then I'm going to hope that the worst thing that happens to me is that I give up my law license. But of course I may be prosecuted as well."
"And you would risk going to jail and messing up this great relationship of yours over the death of a mafia thug who died 18 years ago?" Jenna asked.
"I should have done it back then. I let myself believe that you had nothing to do with it and it wasn't fair to you or the people dependent on you to possible be falsely accused." Peg looked at Jenna. "Now, I don't feel that obligation to protect you. My mistake was not the direct cause of that man's death. Your was."
Jenna stood up. "Peg, I'm begging you to find some other way to handle this. I won't survive if I have to go to prison."
"Jenna, I really don't think that is going to happen. But wouldn't it be better to just have this over with? Anyway, there is no choice here for me. Now, I've got to be on my way to meet up with Braddock."
"Hold on a second. I need to get something from the kitchen to give you." Jenna hurried to the kitchen as Peg gathered her bag and glanced at her cell phone. When she looked up again Jenna stood by the kitchen door, pointing a snub nosed pistol at her, both hands wrapped around the grip.
"You have got to be kidding me," said Peg. For some strange reason she did not feel any fear. "Jenna, this is the worst possible thing you could do. Allison knows I'm here, so it won't be long before they have you on murder charges for sure . ."
Jenna pulled the trigger and a bullet ripped into Peg's upper chest, knocking her flat. The noise was unbelievable. As Peg tried to move away from Jenna and find shelter, another shot rang out and a bullet whizzed by her ear. A moment later a third shot rang out. And then all was quiet. Peg waited several minutes in complete silence before raising her head to look. Jenna lay on the floor, the white carpet growing scarlet around her, her small revolver still pointed at her head.
Allison watched closely as the bandage over Peg's chest was removed. The surgeon examined the wound and then stepped away so that a squad of medical students could peer at the wound as well. He explained to the room at large that the amount of collateral damage caused by the passage of the .38 caliber bullet through Peg's body had been minimal, almost as if it had purposely navigated the safest route through. The wound was healing nicely. Very satisfactory indeed. He nodded at Allison and had turned to exit the room, the students shuffling behind him, when Allison's voice stopped him.
"Doctor, if I may."
The surgeon turned back to Allison with a pasted on smile. "Yes, Miss . . ?"
"My name is Allison Mitchell, and I'm Ms. Ryan's partner. Despite the fact that what you just described sounded rather like a challenging round of golf that you did particularly well on, the fact is that Peg has just been shot through the chest and we have a few questions for you."
"Certainly," said the doctor, still standing in front of the group of med students, some of whom stared at Allison with worried eyes, some with amusement.
Allison then grilled him for fifteen minutes on prognosis, follow up treatment, physical therapy, medication, pain management, and discharge time. By the time the surgeon and students were allowed to flee the room, Peg was asleep again. Allison resumed her seat next to the bed and called Sophie on the room phone.
"How are things in the office?" Allison asked, surprised to find that she didn't really care.
"Luckily they're relatively quiet. Everything's taken care of, so don't worry about that."
"I won't," Allison said. "I just talked to Peg's surgeon, who is a complete asshole, by the way. He said Peg can be released from here in a day or two and I think we'll spend a couple more days here in New York before having her travel back home."
"That's a good idea."
Allison saw Peg open her eyes and blink. She looked confused. Allison hung up with Sophie and reached over to touch Peg's face, smiling down at her.
"How are you feeling, darling?"
"I'm fine. Just a little groggy, I guess."
"I don't doubt it. In addition to having just been through surgery, you're pretty doped up as well."
"I know. That feels pretty strange. I haven't had anything like that in my system for 15 years," Peg said.
"Can I get anything for you?"
Peg smiled. "Yeah. Two things. First off, you can come over here and give me a kiss. I miss you."
Allison complied, slowly, carefully, and with a slight moan as her lips met Peg's. "God, I honestly thought I was going to have a heart attack when I heard you'd been shot. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you." Allison stroked Peg's cheek, ran her fingers through her hair, kissed her again.
"When I saw Jenna holding a gun on me I remember noticing that I didn't really feel fear, as in fear for my life. I remember feeling inexpressibly sad at the thought that I might die at this time of my life, just when I've found you. I did not appreciate the irony," Peg said.
"Luckily, Jenna was a pretty lousy shot. Though with herself as the target she hit the bulls eye."
"Allison . . ."
Allison laughed. "Sorry. I have a hard time being compassionate about the woman who shot my girlfriend."
"I can understand that. But just think of how miserable that poor woman's life was. I'm not saying she made the best choices, but she had so many fewer choices than you or I ever did."
"You're right. I'm a nicer person than I sound like sometimes," Allison said, not looking at all sheepish.
"So, what's the second thing you want from me?"
Peg paused for a moment and asked for some water. Then she raised the bed and scooted herself up a little. "I want you to let those detectives know that I'm ready to talk to them. It's time to get this whole thing dealt with."
In the aftermath of the shooting, while Peg was still in post-op and Allison was pacing the surgical waiting room, two NYPD detectives attempted to question Allison about her knowledge of the incident. Allison could tell them in all truthfulness that she had almost none, only that she knew Peg was visiting Jenna and that they knew each other previously. The detectives gave her a number to call when Peg was able to talk, and promised to return in any event.
Allison held Peg's hand and asked as neutrally as possible, "Do you think it's worth finding out whether Braddock kept his alleged appointment with the D.A.'s office?"
"It doesn't really matter to me whether Braddock has told them or not, since I plan to tell them myself. I should have done that at the time it happened." Peg kept her eyes on their joined hands.
"I thought you felt strongly at the time that protecting Jenna and her family was more important," Allison said.
"Yes, and I think the events of yesterday show just how successful I am at protecting people. My need to control Jenna's fate under the guise of doing the right thing led me to shelter the guilty party for 18 years and then act as the catalyst for her suicide."
"You are so unbelievably hard on yourself."
Peg sighed. "That's why I want this over with. I screwed up, I want to face whatever consequences there are and get on with my life. Our life. I don't want to keep beating myself up about it, or worry about what can happen next."
"Hmm, I do like the sound of that. What I don't like is the idea of you going to prison. Do they allow the conjugal visits if you're not legally married?"
"Is it possible that you are thinking about sex right now?" Peg asked.
"Yes. I am, as a matter of fact." Allison leaned over and kissed Peg and ran her fingers through her hair and kissed her again. "But even I recognize that your formidable powers are undermined by the bullet that blew through your body yesterday."
"I must say, you're being rather flip about this whole thing," Peg said with a smile. "But truthfully, I think the chances of me getting any prison time are almost nil. My law career, however, will be finished."
"You don't seem inclined to try to fight for it."
Peg paused again and then shrugged. "I just can't find it in me to be that upset at the thought of not practicing law anymore. I know for certain that I'd rather offer to give up my license than go through any sort of proceeding with the disciplinary committees in New York and Illinois. I guess it must be time for me to do something else with my life."
"Well, you know what they say. One door closes and another one opens. Maybe this is all happening exactly the way its supposed to."
"I must believe that. I've never felt so calm in my life," Peg said.
"Maybe it's the drugs."
"No. This is different. It's as if this whole ridiculous situation came up now to force me to step back and make some needed changes. Having you in my life has made such a huge difference in my ability to really live my life, and this is just another move along that path. I don't know. Unless you tell me differently, I'm just going to go with my gut here. Tell the truth, get out, move on. Most of all, be with you."
Allison saw Peg's eyelids flutter. She rested her hand on Peg's forehead and murmured "You go to sleep now, darling. The only thing we have to do now is get you better." Allison waited a few moments for Peg to fall asleep, and then picked up the phone and called the number given to her by the detectives.
"This is Allison Mitchell, Detective, here at the hospital with Peg Ryan. If you give us another couple of hours for Peg to rest she'll be ready to talk to you."
When Allison hung up she picked up Peg's hand again and stroked it softly. She also felt more calm than she remembered ever being, concentrating on the hand in her hand, the woman laying next to her. She didn't know what their future held for them, only that they would live it together. And that alone made the future perfect.
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