His arms were chained to the wall. They had been that way so long he could not move them or feel them. He was naked and dirty, unable to move or scratch or pee. They woke him constantly, deprived him of sleep for days at a time. They blasted heavy metal music into his cell, endlessly, painfully. Time was an erratic stream connecting the times they tortured him and the times they did not torture him. He did not know what day it was, or if it was morning or night. His windowless cell provided no clues.
He thought he’d been here for three weeks.
He told them everything he knew the first day.
They didn’t believe him. Or said they didn’t believe him. Or wanted something more. He didn’t know.
He knew he couldn’t endure this much longer.
Waiting. Dangling. Crushing boredom and crushing pain. And it was so hot. The first week it had been unbearably cold and they gave him nothing to wear. Now it was unbearably hot, as if he were back in the desert, no oasis in sight, melting by inches, the air so thick he couldn’t breathe.
Being crucified on the wall did not help with the breathing.
He heard the creaking of a distant door, followed by the muffled echo of combat boots.
They were coming back.
The cell door opened. Nazir, the worst of the trio, stepped inside, followed by two assistants. He didn’t know their names. The fat one and the young one—the one who seemed to enjoy it.
Nazir did not make eye contact. “Unchain him.”
The two lackeys fulfilled his command. He couldn’t even feel the difference, even as his arms slammed to his side.
Nazir pointed to the wooden chair.
They pushed and dragged him to it, the only furniture in the cell, near the stinking toilet bucket that had not been emptied in a week. Someone jabbed the back of his knees. He collapsed into the chair.
Nazir peered down at him. “Does it work?”
Speaking did not come easily. He had done little but scream for so long. His throat was dry and his lips were chapped. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Nazir did not blink. “Does it work?”
“I told you before, I don’t know anything. I wasn’t in long and I didn’t do much. I just want to go. Please let me out of here. Please.”
Nazir’s jaw tightened. “Does it work?”
“Don’t keep saying that. Listen to me. I beg you.”
“You beg me.” Nazir curled his lips. “And you call yourself an American.”
“Why are you doing this?” He tried not to whimper. “I don’t know anything that can help you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Tears sprung from his eyes. “How can I make you believe me?”
“You can’t. Because you lie.”
A single bright overhead light illuminated the small cell. He watched as Nazir pulled it down and pointed it at his face.
“You do not look well. I think it is time you gave up your foolish resistance and talked.”
Nazir spat in his face. “I could kill you now and no one would know. No one could do anything about it if they did know.”
“Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”
“Then tell me what I want to hear.”
“I don’t know what you want to hear. I don’t.”
“Does it work?”
“What? Does what work?”
Nazir grabbed him by the throat. “Does. It. Work?”
“Yes! Yes, it does. It works magnificently well.”
Nazir’s eyes narrowed. “What does it do?”
He hesitated. “…whatever you want it to do?”
Nazir slapped him hard. “Do you think you will outlast me? Do you think if you are strong enough, I will release you?” Nazir shoved him backward, rocking the chair. “I will never let you go. You are my personal fuck toy, now and always, to do with as I choose.”
Nazir kicked the chair leg, making it fall over, sending him crashing downward. His head hit the stone floor, forcing more tears from his eyes.
“I could take you by force,” Nazir said. “I could humiliate and disgrace you. I could humble you before our Creator and every man on this earth.”
“Please don’t. Please don’t. God no. Please.”
“Do you think I will be kind? You are a traitor.”
“Did you imagine yourself Snowden? Assange? You stupid petty cockroach.” Nazir shoved his head down on the stone floor and kept pressing.
One of the lackeys spoke. “Let’s give him the water treatment. We haven’t done that for a while.”
“Not again.” His body shook violently. “Please don’t hurt me again.”
“Who are you working for?”
“I’m not working for anyone.”
Nazir crouched down. “You will tell me everything you know. You realize that, don’t you? All this suffering is so futile.”
“I already told you everything.”
“They all break eventually. Everyone does and you will too.”
“I would help you,” he gasped. “I would. If I could. I don’t know what you want. Maybe I could find out. Maybe if you let me go I could find out what you want to know.”
“Worthless American. Worthless filthy traitorous American.”
“I’d do anything you want.”
“Then tell me. Tell me now.”
“I don’t know anything!”
“Then you will be with me forever.”
Nazir walked to the back of the cell. “This is your last chance to avoid a lifetime in hell. Talk to me.”
“I don’t know anything!”
He motioned to his assistants. “Chain him back up.”
He closed his eyes, unable to bear the thought of being strapped to that wall again, maybe all day, maybe for the rest of his life.
“There is no escape for you,” Nazir said, teeth clenched. “I can hold you forever. I have the authority. I can do whatever I want with you. Because you are a person of interest. And I am the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Suspicion of Evil
I watch as the foreman grips the document that will determine the future, life or death, for at least three people in this room: my client, the woman sitting behind him, and me.
His fingers twitch, rustling the pages together. I wonder whether this man fully comprehends his power. Perhaps he does. Perhaps that’s why he grips the paper so tightly and perspiration soaks through the parchment. But how could he fully understand when he knows so little of the truth? Ninety percent of what lawyers do at trial is designed to limit what the jury knows, not to inform them. Could he read between the lines? Could he understand what no one was permitted to say? In his normal quotidian life, he’s the assistant supervisor on a loading dock. But today he’s Solomon, and Torquemada, and Jack Ketch. Today he has the power to decide who lives and who dies.
This trial—an appropriate term—has dragged on for weeks. The relevant information could probably have been conveyed in an afternoon. But these exercises in amateur theatrics are not about efficiency, nor are they about justice. Today they are about politics and the societal need for retribution—a code word for vengeance, the pettiest of motives. This is bread and circuses, a performance designed to amuse and placate the masses.
The reporters, commenters, and bloggers that have covered this case nonstop are scavengers circling for carrion. My client is the prey while I and the others wearing blue and gray suits exist somewhere in between. There was a time when I considered us officers of justice. But now I see that we are little better than mechanics oiling the wheels of the machinery. Churning through cases. Through people’s lives. And their deaths.
The only opinions that matter now are the twelve opinions sitting in that box, those twelve random souls chosen not for their wisdom, not for their powers of perspicacity, but because they hold a driver’s license. On those opinions now rest futures, families, perhaps even the fate of nations. The sword of Damocles hangs over our heads, suspended not by a thread, but by a faith in an abstract notion: jury of one’s peers.
I’ve sat in this room and listened to that judge speak the same words on many previous occasions. These words are litany, like the incantations of a religious sect. Presumed innocent. Beyond a reasonable doubt. We brandish these catch phrases as if they actually mean something. But that is not how jurors decide cases. Some will try to do what they think is right. Some will acquiesce to the majority. And some will do whatever gets them out of here the quickest. Words are empty air when confronted with realities of this magnitude.
And sadly, words are the only tools lawyers possess.
My client glances at me nervously, running his finger through his hair, hoping for a sign. He thinks I can read the foreman’s expression and tell him what lies ahead.
And he’s right. I can. But early knowledge will not benefit him in the slightest. Better to let the service reach its own benediction.
The young woman also stares at me. I know what she’s thinking. That I’ve failed her. Again.
I brace myself. The judge opens the document and nods. The bailiff returns the document to the foreman. The twelve look like pallbearers standing over a grave.
The foreman speaks.
The world erupts in a searing flash of desperation and fury.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
Seven Months Earlier
This is the most important case I’ve ever handled, so I’m keeping a detailed record. I want to remember every second of it in the days to come. Some people think my actions were inexplicable. I get that. All that matters to me is that I remember why I did what I did. I’ll never forget how it ended. I don’t want to lose the details that got us there.
I’ve been a trial lawyer for many years, maybe too many. Ben Kincaid, Attorney-at-Law. Almost twenty years now. And in all those years, I’ve only managed to learn two things. First: Being a lawyer is way more complicated than most people realize.
And second: Every trial has a critical turning point.
Just like a good novel, a trial always reaches a place where the storyline veers suddenly in an unexpected or decisive direction. Sometimes it is a moment of clarity. Sometimes it is a moment of despair. It may not be immediately apparent to others. But when you’ve done this as long as I have, you can feel it in your veins.
I had just reached such a turning point in the Overnight Express trial, the one I handled immediately before Oz came back into my life. It was a dull affair about mismanaged phone orders for package deliveries. Judge Perkins knew this was tedious. I could see the weary haze in her eyes. She’s a heavy-set woman, never married, never so far as I know even close to it, and that worried me initially. I represented the plaintiff, Powers Leone, who had a reputation for being a would-be playboy—exactly the type of man a serious single woman of indefinite sexuality might dislike. My ace in the hole was supposed to be the current witness, Leone’s mistress, who for the purposes of this trial we were calling his fiancée. She was supposed to verify Leone’s testimony and clinch the case.
She did an admirable job. Three days of witness prep reaped benefits. I asked the right questions and she responded appropriately, never going on too long, never speaking so evasively that jurors had any reason to doubt her veracity. I’ve always rehearsed my witnesses extensively. We review everything: how to dress, how to sit, whether to cross your legs, whether to look at the jurors, whether to hide emotion or show it, whether to speak loudly or softly or somewhere in between.
Kyra Kubrick had little to do with the order-fulfillment business. She was present during a conversation during which the defendant allegedly admitted that his company mishandled calls, resulting in a large loss of income over the Christmas holidays. Kyra was a tall woman, slender, pale and brittle as bone china, just attractive enough to potentially arouse resentment from female jurors. I cautioned her to go easy on the makeup and to let her hair fall naturally. She’d had an accident in the bath the day before and wore a bandage on the right side of her face—which I considered a blessing. I didn’t want her to look glamorous. I wanted her to look like an honest woman caught in a feud between well-heeled power brokers.
“Any further questions, Mr. Kincaid?” the judge asked.
“Just a few.” I addressed Kyra. “Was this the first time you met the defendant, Brian Wagner?”
She cleared her throat. “Yes.”
“Probably heard your fiancé mention his name before though?”
“Why were you at the Roundhouse?” As the jurors would know, the Roundhouse was one of the nicest restaurants in Oklahoma City.
“We were celebrating. It was our anniversary.” She looked down and smiled. “We’d been together two years.”
By modern standards, a millennium. Very good. “So this was a special occasion?”
“Powers is a very special man. No one ever treated me the way he does.”
Wonderful. If a client starts talking about how terrific he is, jurors are likely to think he’s a blowhard. But if it comes from someone else, particularly an adoring woman, that’s different. If she likes him, they subconsciously surmise that he must be a likeable person.
“Were you expecting Mr. Wagner?”
“No. He just appeared suddenly.”
“What was his demeanor?”
“At first he seemed angry. He said he knew Powers had been talking to attorneys. He said Powers should think carefully before he tried to—” Her voice dropped a notch. “Do I have to use the same word he did?”
Adorable. Couldn’t play better here in the reddest of the red states, Bible Belt Oklahoma. “I’m afraid you do, Kyra.”
She swallowed. “He said—that Powers should think carefully before he tried to screw with him.”
Such language. I hope his mother washed his mouth out with soap. “What happened next?”
“They argued. For two or three minutes. I was afraid the manager would throw us out of the restaurant. And then, all at once, Wagner started crying.”
Several eyebrows rose in the jury box. They were paying attention. “Did you understand why he was crying?”
“Not at first. It seemed like…a strange mood swing.”
“What did you do?”
“I offered him a napkin. He was crying all over himself.”
“What did Mr. Wagner say?”
She hesitated, only for a second, but in that second, everything changed. I mentioned that every trial had a turning point? This was it. This testimony, coming from a likeable witness, could save the day for my client.
“He said…four things,” she replied, and just after she did, she glanced at my client. Then her hand brushed against the side of her face, the bandaged side.
And that’s when I understood everything.
Something about the way she replied, the way she gave me a topic sentence instead of an answer…seemed wrong. As if she had memorized a list. And that hadn’t happened during our practice sessions. This was something I hadn’t heard before. Something new.
Something that wasn’t true.
Why perjure herself? Of course, she loved Leone and wanted to please him, but most people would draw the line at lying in court. Unless…
I saw the look Leone gave her. A tiny furrow between the brows. A coldness in the eyes. Stern. Uncompromising.
And then she touched the bandage.
Damn. How could I be so stupid?
The saddest part was, I think she really did love him. And for that and probably a host of other psychological reasons, she stayed with him, even though she knew she should go.
As an attorney bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct, I had a tricky decision to make, and about three seconds to make it. This woman was about to perjure herself. I knew that as well as I knew my wife’s middle name. I could probably pretend I didn’t, but I did.
On the other hand, her testimony was crucial. Wagner supposedly confessed that the phone orders were mishandled, and we had the burden of proof to demonstrate the mishandling by a preponderance of the evidence. Our best evidence was the weepy confession at the restaurant.
But it was a lie. A lie Leone bullied her into telling.
I can’t honestly say I’ve never done anything the Disciplinary Committee of the Bar Association might condemn. I have. But always for a good reason. And today—I didn’t have one. This was just a squabble between two businessmen over a big pile of money.
And what if she got caught? Sure, she probably wouldn’t, but what if she did? Leone was no fool—he got someone else to take the risks. Should I allow her to put her neck in the noose?
If I asked, what were the four things Wagner said, she would undoubtedly tell me. So I didn’t ask.
“After Mr. Wagner left, what happened?”
Kyra blinked several times rapidly. “Nothing. We finished our dinner.”
“Thank you. No more questions.” I returned to the plaintiff’s table.
Leone controlled his emotions well, but I could read the message in his eyes, and the language was considerably harsher than “screw you.” For that matter, the opposing attorney seemed fairly dumbfounded.
At the break, I concocted some excuse, some alleged strategic reason for not eliciting the perjury. And I found another way to make the same point with someone else. My cross-examination of Wagner also showed how badly the phone orders were bungled. So I didn’t hurt my client. But I also didn’t allow an innocent young woman to sell her soul and endanger her future.
And no one in the world would ever know what I did.
Like I said, being an attorney is way more complicated than most people realize.
During the lunch break, I called my wife on my cell.
“Hey, Chris. You at home or the office?”
“Office. The twins are in All Souls’ Mom’s Day Out till five.” I knew there was more to that thought, but she kept the rest to herself. “Need something?”
“Do you still volunteer at Harmonium?” A local battered women’s shelter.
“Of course. Why?”
“I’d like you to contact someone I know. Kyra Kubrick. Tell her about Harmonium and the help they can offer. I think she’s been abused for some time.”
“I’ll call. But you know, people rarely respond to phone calls about something like this. They go into denial mode. Usually we can’t do anything until they’re ready to seek help themselves.”
“I know. But she just dodged a major bullet, so she might be receptive.”
“I’ll give it a try. How’s the trial going?”
I’d save the details for later. “Not bad, given that the brains of our partnership aren’t in the courtroom.”
I could feel the smile on the other end of the phone. “I think you can handle this one yourself.” Which was her loving way of saying, civil cases bored her to tears. They did me, too, but bills must be paid. “Home by seven?”
“Likely. Want me to pick up sandwiches at Napoleon’s?”
“No. The mighty trial warrior deserves a home-cooked meal. Just let me know if you’re going to be late.”
“Will do. Anything else on your mind?”
“No.” A few moments of reflection and hesitation. Funny how sometimes you can feel so much pain packed into a single syllable. “No.”
So we weren’t going to talk about it yet. Fine. I guess. “You know you’re what keeps me going, right?”
“In the sense that you’d probably forget to eat if I weren’t around to remind you?”
“No.” The problem with having an elephant in the room is that the damn thing makes it so hard to see the door. “In the sense that, no matter what has happened or will happen, I keep moving forward because I know you’ve got my back.” That was about as close to talking about it as I could get without actually talking about it.
“No dark moments of the soul?” A Fitzgerald reference. I knew what she meant.
“When I say no matter what, I do mean no matter what.”
Only a slight pause. “See you for dinner.”
“See you then.”
I slid the phone back into my pocket. At times, I feel as if my entire life has been a long series of mistakes and accidents. But there’s one brilliant exception, one that made up for all the goofs, a thousand times over. Lots of men said stuff like this, but I knew it was true. Marrying Christina was the smartest thing I ever did.
Not everyone understood my devotion to my spectacular wife. When I first met her, she was running around in colored tights and crazy Alice in Wonderland hair. She’s matured, not that I didn’t adore her then. She’s smart, useful, hardworking, and everyone likes her. I, on the other hand, am slow, neurotic, antisocial, and I fully expected to be alone till the end of my days, the pathetic geezer you see at the cafeteria complaining that his Salisbury steak isn’t cooked enough. Christina gave me a life, gave me a family. I’d do anything for that woman.
The sandwiches in the snack bar on the first floor of the Oklahoma County courtroom were old and sadly deteriorated, not unlike the courthouse itself, but I grabbed a ham and cheese and some chocolate milk and started back to the courtroom. I wanted to review my notes and some of the deposition transcripts before the trial resumed.
I pivoted in front of the world’s slowest elevators. Michael Hickman, associate prosecutor in the US Attorney General’s office, offered his hand. We’d had a few cases opposite one another since I moved to Oklahoma City. He struck me as a fairly typical government lawyer—ambitious, political, and too often, completely self-oriented. For me, being a lawyer was always about the clients. But lawyers in the AG’s office represented the government—in other words, they didn’t really have a client. They had a cause. To me, that changed everything.
Hickman had moptop curls that wreathed his head like a halo. His soft Irish smile was hard to resist, even for someone like myself who’d spent most of his life resisting.
“Hey, Michael. What brings you to the wrong side of the tracks?” The attorney general’s office was a few miles away, and they typically practiced in the federal courthouse.
“This is a closely guarded secret, but—the coffee is much better here.” Which seemed extremely unlikely. “Days like these I need all the help I can get. Every day is a Monday, right?”
Generally speaking, I like lawyers, but I weary of the bromides we exchange as a substitute for real conversation. “True dat.”
“What are you up to, Ben?”
“Toiling in the civil courts today. Breach of contract. Tortious interference with business.”
“Any chance on the tort claim?”
“Not really. But torts raise the possibility of punitive damages, which sometimes puts goosebumps on corporate flesh. It’s worth pleading, if only for settlement purposes.”
He gave me an aw-shucks expression that I immediately distrusted. “Too complicated for me. I’ll stick to criminal work. Right and wrong. Black and white. That’s hard enough for a Muskogee boy.”
Right. He was about as rural as I was. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to prep for—”
“Hear you’ve got a new client.”
I slowed. “I do?”
“C’mon, Ben. Privilege doesn’t extend to the fact of representation.”
So this wasn’t a chance encounter. This was a fishing expedition. “Sorry. Haven’t had a new case or client in several weeks.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, fine. But don’t lie to me.”
There are many things in this profession I will grudgingly tolerate. But being called a liar is not one of them. “You’re mistaken. Unless you know something I don’t.”
“Well, I know who’s sitting in your office right now.”
My first thought was: How? But I knew asking that question would be pointless. “You’re monitoring my office?”
He glanced down at his coffee. “We can’t do that. But we can monitor persons of interest.”
My eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “Michael, I’m tired of tap dancing. What are you talking about?”
Hickman looked both ways down the corridor, then pulled me to one side, as if somehow that would convey more privacy. “Look, I’m only doing this because I bumped into you and we’re friends.”
Three fibs in one sentence. Must be a record of some sort. “Doing what?”
“Cautioning you. Against getting involved in a whole mess of trouble you don’t need or want.”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about that sweet family of yours. They don’t need you wrapped up in something you might never get out of. Your record’s dodgy enough as it is. Your license wouldn’t survive jail time.”
“Are you threatening me?”
He held up his hands, palms outward. “Of course not. Calm down. I’m just trying to help. I don’t want to get caught up in the cogs.”
“If you want to help me, the best thing you could do is stop babbling in riddles and explain what you’re talking about.”
He laid his hand on my shoulder and pulled me about as near as it was possible to be without kissing. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Give him the boot, Ben. Let the court-appointed drone handle it. Better for everyone. Especially you.”
He gave me a little squeeze and walked away, dropping his coffee into the nearest trashcan.
I didn’t know what to make of that. This was not the first time I’d been on the wrong side of government officials. But usually I at least understood why. This time I was completely clueless.
On a hunch, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. Sure enough, I found a message from Tanya. I silenced the ringer while I was in court, so I missed the usual panpipe that told me I had a message.
POSS CLIENT N OFFICE. TOLD HIM U WERE N COURT. WONT LEAVE TILL HE TALKS TO U.
Normally, leaving the courthouse during a trial, even during lunch, would be unthinkable. The trial at hand always takes precedence. But on this occasion, I thought I’d best make an exception. I was unlikely to be able to concentrate on anything else till I figured out what was up.
After a brisk jog to my office, I walked through the front doors. No one sat behind the reception desk. Or so it initially appeared. Upon closer inspection, I found someone behind the reception desk who was not immediately visible. Because her head was under the desk. And her nineteen-year-old rear was thrust up toward the heavens.
I am completely and unalterably devoted to my wife. But did I notice that Tanya was wearing thong underwear? I’m devoted, not blind. Cute little butterfly tattoo, also.
“Drop something?” I asked.
“It’s the net server. We’ve lost our connection again. I can’t do a thing without it.” She withdrew her head. “When did we all become so dependent on computers?”
Coming from a woman about the same age as my car, this was more than a trifle risible. “The world runs on the Internet.”
“I wish people would forget email exists. I spend half my day answering it.”
“Twenty years ago, you would’ve spent half the day playing telephone tag. This is better.”
“If you say so.” I heard a click that told me she’d replaced a connection. “Let’s see if the reboot works.” She stood up a little too fast, dislodging the contents of her low-neck blouse and giving me an unnecessarily generous view of her two strategically placed crescent moon tattoos. “You need to get to the conference room, Ben. He’s been waiting a long time.”
“What’s his name?”
She glanced down at her desk. “Omar al-Jaffar.”
Now I understood Hickman’s use of the phrase “person of interest.” “What’s he been charged with?”
“Don’t really know. Wants you to file a lawsuit.”
Curiouser and curiouser. “Tanya, have you noticed anything…unusual around the office?”
“Like weirdo guys who won’t leave, won’t make an appointment, and stare at my tats?”
“You have tattoos?”
“Duh. If you weren’t so head over heels with your wife, you would’ve noticed.”
“Love is blind. But I was thinking more in terms of…being watched.”
“Guys are always watching me.”
“But…anything unusual? Like maybe someone watching this prospective client?”
“Not that I noticed. What is he, ISIS?”
I didn’t comment. Because I didn’t know and also because despite her bravura attitude, I thought Tanya seemed a trifle skittish about this man, perhaps even scared. She’d worked for me about six months. It was an adjustment. I was accustomed to having a seasoned professional and semi-mature adult at this station. But Jones didn’t want to move to OKC, so Christina took over the office-management duties and Tanya filled in at the front desk.
I met Tanya when she turned state’s evidence on one of my clients. She was from a small town in Western Oklahoma, Dill City, who thought she’d won the lottery when she was asked out by the high school quarterback. This was an Oklahoma town that completely revolved around high school football—well, actually, they all are. Consequently she didn’t say anything even when it became clear he used performance-enhancing drugs, not only on the field but in the classroom. Her deal with the DA kept her out of jail but left her a pariah in the only town she knew. I gave her a job to help her get back on her feet. She took night classes at UCO, hoping to be a teacher one day. Her secretarial skills were rudimentary at best, but her attitude was excellent, which I found a pleasing change.
“I don’t know what he is. Guess I better find out. Hold my calls. I have to be back in the courtroom by one.”
Tanya nodded and I headed down the corridor. I braced myself for what was bound to be an unpleasant conversation. Probably because of my reputation for handling civil rights cases, not to mention hopeless cases, I’d been approached before by men of Middle Eastern descent protesting their treatment by the federal government. For good or ill, the Patriot Act gave law enforcement enormous powers, and no judge yet had the courage to declare the law unconstitutional.
I had another problem, though one I never discussed or admitted to anyone, not even my wife. I had a hard time understanding foreign accents, particularly those of the Persian variety. It may relate to a hearing loss I suffered at an early age from an ear infection. I once dated a lovely woman with a French accent, but I had to end it because constantly asking her to repeat herself was making us both batty. Having a client you couldn’t readily understand was almost equally impossible.
So I braced myself for a conversation that would be somewhat tortured and for him, unavailing.
“Ben! How the hell are you?”
I froze in the doorway. Most people have probably had the awkward experience of being recognized by someone you couldn’t recognize back—but it happened to me all the time. Part of that is because my legal exploits, plus the two books I wrote, have given me a higher-than-average profile. Part of it, I suspect, is because you only have so many memory slots in your head, and so many of mine are consumed by litigation details and piano chords and obscure Scrabble words, some faces have been pushed out.
“Good Lord, Ben. How long has it been?”
And the other problem is that I was expecting to see someone with a darker skin tone. But the man standing before me was just as Caucasian as I am. More so, actually, since he had more hair in a lighter color. His ramrod posture and close-cut hair suggested military.
“How’s Julia? I haven’t seen or heard anything in years.”
The reference to my sister was the memory jog I needed. They used to date. But the name wasn’t right. Something didn’t match up.
And then the light dawned. Did Tanya get the name wrong? “Oz?”
He smiled again and stopped shaking my hand. “I’m sorry. I should’ve left both names with your receptionist. Who, by the way, is quite the hottie.” He jabbed me in the side. “Does your wife know about her?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I maintained my stunned and silent demeanor.
“I’d have gone to law school if I’d known there were perks like that. After your sister, I didn’t date again for three years.”
It was him. Oz Kirby. Oz, short for Oscar, and who could blame him for abbreviating that? “Oscar” must’ve been a terrible burden for a teenager.
I was embarrassed for not recognizing him sooner. We had a lot of history. Most of which I would prefer to forget. “Oz…do you know if anyone followed you here?”
“I’m certain someone did. They’ve been following me for months.”
He was completely straight-faced when he said: “They think I’m a terrorist.”
The pieces were coming together. “Do they have any evidence?”
The corner of his lips turned up. “Do they need any evidence?”