Splinters from the weathered exterior wall caught at the fabric of Ben’s shirt, poking through to his skin as he leaned up against them. He was attempting to catch a small pocket of shade near the stables while the phone call from Melanie rambled on. Miraculously, the Blackberry had survived being thrown like a missile across the porch during the night. Aside from two small cracks marring the surface of the screen, the device itself was unscathed.
“Pick up your ticket at the first-class counter,” Mel continued, reading through his itinerary to Chicago. “Once you land at O’Hare, a car will be waiting to take you straight to the studio. I suggest you eat a bite on the plane, because you won’t have any other opportunity. Barring unforeseen delays with traffic, you should arrive at the studio with just enough time for dress and makeup.”
“Dress and makeup…” Ben echoed. “You know I hate makeup, Mel…”
“That’s showbiz, honey.”
“Maybe I should cancel the appearance,” he said. “I’m sure the rumors have grown even more outrageous in the last 24 hours. Why bother going on national T.V.?”
“Because you committed to it,” she replied. “And because you can make things right on national T.V. Slash the rumors down. You’re good at saying just the right things to dazzle your fans. Flash your gorgeous smile, sweetheart, that will be enough.”
The sight of a vehicle winding its way from the main road down the long dirt-and-gravel driveway caught Ben’s attention. Sunlight reflected off of its large windshield like a mirror, almost blinding him, but he watched it approach through squinted eyes, wondering if it was yet another journalist failing to respect the laws of private property. As the SUV drew nearer, however, he realized with paralyzation and disappointment that it was a police vehicle.
“Travis!” he called out over his shoulder, aiming for the open doorway to the stables. Then, into the phone, he spat, “Gotta go, Mel,” and stuffed the Blackberry into his pocket.
Derry was the first to appear outside. Alerted to a new arrival, she took off in a blazing run across the yard, anxious to investigate the unknown visitor. Eventually, Travis emerged, unhurried, wiping his dirty hands on a rag. “What?” he asked.
Ben pointed a finger towards the Chevy Tahoe now parked alongside the pickup, and Travis released a heavy sigh. “Fucking great,” he mumbled.
They watched a young male uniformed officer emerge from the vehicle and take several long strides up to the front porch. A minute after he rang the bell, Mrs. Cooper pulled open the door and greeted him. A reserved smile crossed her face, as though she recognized the young man but was unsure why his presence was on her front stoop. They spoke to one another briefly, and then she pointed across the property to the stables where Ben and Travis stood, rooted to the ground.
With Mrs. Cooper trailing not far behind him, the light-haired officer headed down the path toward the cluster of outbuildings. His expression was devoid of any emotion or clue as to the purpose of his visit, but facial clues weren’t necessary; both Ben and Travis knew exactly why he was there.
“Travis,” he greeted with solemn familiarity as he approached. He stood with hands resting on the contents of his duty belt, his legs slightly parted as if in preparation for a chase, should it become necessary.
“Luke,” Travis returned, no defensiveness in his voice or in his stance. He wasn’t going to run. It wasn’t his style. “What brings you out here?”
Cutting straight to the point, Luke stated his first question with an unwavering tone. “Do you know a man named Eric Spencer?”
A muscle in Travis’ jaw constricted as he clenched his teeth. Aside from this small visible aggravation, he remained calm. “Yes,” he replied, jaw still tight. “He used to intern here, over a year ago.”
“Are you aware that he was brutally assaulted sometime between five and six o’clock yesterday evening in the parking lot of the Eagle’s Nest?”
Mrs. Cooper sucked in a small gasp. Travis crossed his arms. Ben shut his eyes for a moment and breathed in through his nostrils, concentrating on the the slight breeze hitting his face. Then, suddenly, his mouth opened and he blurted out, “It was self-defense!” yelling the exclamation like a school boy on the playground defending a guilty friend.
All eyes turned to him, and Ben felt his face burn under the scrutiny and disbelief of his outburst. A clear silence followed as each person waited to see if he was going to offer up any more words, but he stayed quiet and hung his head, ashamed at his lack of composure. Keep your mouth shut, idiot! Don’t make matters worse.
Luke returned his attention to Travis. “I have to ask you, Cooper… Where were you yesterday between five and six o’clock in the evening?”
A long pause followed the dreaded question. Then, Travis replied, “I was at the Eagle’s Nest, having a couple of beers. With friends.”
“Did you have any interaction with Mr. Spencer while there?”
“I did. I returned a piece of property to him.”
“What was the piece of property?”
Ben noticed that Luke had pulled out a small notebook and was jotting information down.
“I returned a ring to him,” Travis replied. “He’d erroneously given it to my sister a couple days ago.”
Once again, Mrs. Cooper sucked in a gasp of air.
“Where did this interaction take place?” Luke inquired. “Were you inside or outside the bar?”
“At what point did you and Mr. Spencer leave the bar and go outside into the parking lot?”
“I never said I was out in the parking lot with him,” Travis interjected. Somehow, his demeanor hadn’t changed; he remained calm and collected, unruffled by the interrogation – in opposite form to Ben, who was having some difficulty controlling his shaking hands and rattled mind.
“Mr. Spencer is claiming otherwise,” Luke stated. “We also have an eye witness who gave a statement that you were seen pulling Mr. Spencer out through the front door of the bar between five and six o’clock yesterday evening.”
Travis said nothing more, just stared at the officer.
Catching an opportunity to intervene, Ben stepped forward out of the shade. “Uh, Sir, if I may…” he stammered. “I was with Travis at the bar last night…”
Luke shifted startling-golden eyes on him. “And you are…?” he inquired.
This was carefully written in the notebook, officially and without flair, celebrity stardom irrelevant. “Your statement can be added to the report, Mr. Mansfield,” the officer informed him. “Which can be done at the station.”
“He didn’t see anything,” Travis interrupted. He shot Ben a hard glare – a warning to keep his mouth shut – and then uncrossed his arms and started to take a few steps up the path. Luke, alarmed by this sudden movement, touched his gun holster and commanded him to stop. Travis obeyed and turned around to face him, holding his hands slightly raised as if in defeat. “I’m just going to your car so you can take me in, Luke,” he bellowed. “The sooner we get this over with, the better. I’ve got things to do today.”
Luke responded by pulling out a set of shiny handcuffs from his duty belt.
“Seriously?” Travis complained. “I’m not resisting you.”
“It’s protocol,” Luke stated. He turned Travis around, clamped the cuffs into place.
Ben felt frustration rise as he witnessed it; this whole event was absurd, disjointed. Still, Travis showed no signs of resistance, even when the final clicks of the locking mechanisms sounded. Straining his neck around to catch Ben’s attention, he said sternly, “Stay out of this.”
Like hell I will, was Ben’s inward reply, but to Travis he gave an obedient nod.
The small group walked up the path together – Luke with a firm hand on Travis’ elbow, Mrs. Cooper with a firm hand on Ben’s elbow. As they approached the Chevy Tahoe, Curtis came ambling in from the north pasture on a weathered brown and white paint horse. Once near the vehicle, he reined the animal to a stop and slid down from the saddle in a fluid motion. “What the hell is this about?” he demanded.
Luke held up his free hand to stop the agitated man from stepping any closer. “I have to take him in, Curtis,” he announced. “You can come to the station and post bail for him later.”
“I’ll come now,” Curtis stated. He tossed the reins over to his mother, who fumbled to grab them as he dug in his pocket for his keys.
“There’s no point in coming now,” Luke announced as he pulled open the rear passenger door. He guided Travis onto the seat, shut him inside. “There’s processing to be done,” he continued. “You can come this afternoon. Bail should be set by then.”
“What exactly is the charge?”
“You can get answers at the station.” From the front seat, the officer pulled out a metal storage clipboard and spent several minutes writing an entire essay while everyone observed in anxious silence. After he’d finished, he moved around to the driver’s side of the vehicle and gave each observer a final glance. “Thanks for your cooperation,” he said with a curt nod, then slid in behind the wheel and shut the door.
Despite Luke’s gratitude, Ben felt everything but cooperative as he watched Travis peer at him through the tinted window. He fought the urge to verbally protest, yank the rear door open, pull Travis out and exclaim his innocence again. This is complete bullshit! ricocheted through his mind. But the full-sized SUV roared to life, reversed, and pulled out, leaving Ben, Curtis and Mrs. Cooper in a cloud of dust as it traveled back down the drive.
Once it had vanished from view, there lingered a heavy silence and distinct bitterness in the air. Eventually, Curtis directed a statement at Ben, turning to face him on the heels of muddy boots. “Tell me what happened,” he growled. “And don’t leave any fucking details out.”
* * * *
The Blackberry had become a dead weight, wedged between Ben’s right ear and shoulder. Its prolonged presence there had caused a kink in his neck, but he didn’t care to move it; the conversation with Marty was too important. Although they’d found no clear resolution yet, Ben was determined to exhaust all angles that would either exonerate Travis of the charges – whatever they were – or give him the best chance for leniency.
“This occurred over 18 months ago,” Marty restated now, as if for clarification despite having been given full disclosure of the story already. “And no proof of sexual relations with the young girl outside of her personal testimony.”
“I doubt Katy would testify to anything,” Ben sighed. His once-brilliant idea of accusing Eric of statutory rape was steadfastly crumbling. “The stupid girl is in love with the guy and believes he feels the same…” He stretched his legs down across the lower steps of the porch. Attempted to find a more comfortable position to alleviate the pain pulsating in his lower back. “Is this all futile, Marty?” he asked with resignation. “Should we not bother going this route?”
Martin Goersberg, one of L.A.’s most prominent civil litigation attorneys, replied assuredly, “Nothing is ever futile in the legal world, Ben. Not if the price is right and you hire the best lawyers.”
Ben leaned an elbow back against the porch floor and felt the scrape of old wood. He was too tired and stubborn to get up and go find a proper seat in a patio chair. Already, the morning had turned into midday in the blink of an eye, with myriad back-breaking chores performed in Travis’ absence: moving pasture fencing, mucking out horse stalls, spreading hay, filling water troughs – all the while trying to keep a wide berth from Curtis, who’d cursed and kicked things around the stables even more than usual.
Aside from physical exertion, Ben was also experiencing mental and emotional strain: visions of Travis in a holding cell, sitting on a hard bench, counting the minutes that passed by, waiting for a decision to be made as to the matter of his fate. Would he be charged with aggravated assault? Just how severe were Eric’s injuries? Considering the condition the guy had been left in on the asphalt, the outcome seemed grim…
Ben’s original plan of posting Travis’ bail had been immediately shot down by Marty during their first conversation several hours prior; the lawyer had firmly advised that Ben stay as far away from the situation as possible so as not to give the media any more fodder. Although initially irritated by the advice, eventually Ben had agreed to it – if for no other reason than he figured the funds for the bond would be reluctantly pulled from the fuck-money Curtis extorted from Travis. In that regard, it seemed only right and fair that the tyrant be given the responsibility of posting his younger brother’s bail and bringing him back home.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” Marty said, interrupting Ben’s thoughts, shuffling through papers. “I’ll have my team conduct a search on Eric. With what you’ve told me, it’s likely he has a criminal record. We’ll use it as leverage, if we can. Does Travis have any prior convictions?”
Ben looked out across the expanse of pasture. Shooed a fly away from his face. “I don’t think so…” he replied with uncertainty. “At least not that I’m aware of…”
Where Travis was concerned, though, previous arrests weren’t impossible to believe. In fact, they were probable. Trouble seemed to follow that guy around like bees to pollen.
“Well, I’ll be in touch,” Marty announced, taking the initiative to wrap-up the prolonged conversation. “Take my advice seriously about keeping a low profile on this case. Your tabloid exposure has darkened your reputation enough as it is. Let’s not black it out altogether.”
“Understood,” Ben agreed, but the frustration of hiding and lying and playing out a role he no longer felt like performing rose to the surface, heating his skin.
“Let’s talk again when you’re back in town,” Marty suggested. “I should know something by then. I’ve got a criminal lawyer friend we can bring in, if Travis needs one, if you can afford it.”
“Thanks, Marty. Money isn’t an issue. I’ll call you later tomorrow.”
After disconnecting, Ben carefully hoisted himself up to a standing position and performed a few body stretches. Every muscle in his lower back protested the labors of the morning. Even though he considered himself to be in good shape, each day at the ranch presented a new discovery of muscle workout he hadn’t dealt with before. At the end of it all, he was left with calloused hands, an aching spine, and unbelievable fatigue. How the hell did Travis find any gratification in it? The rewards didn’t seem to balance out with the arduous labor.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.”
Ben jerked at the sound of Katy’s voice, surprised at her sudden presence. She’d managed to step out onto the front porch without being noticed and now stood beside him, her fingers sliding onto his hand. The scent of her vanilla perfume hit his nostrils, reminding him of their altercation in the woods on the day they’d gone snowboarding, and it sickened him to smell it now. Not offering a response to her statement, he pulled his hand away and moved over to lean against the railing. You there, me here, little girl. Why the fuck was he still having to set these boundaries with her?
“I know I made some mistakes,” she continued. Although she didn’t move any closer, the desperation in her eyes seemed to shorten the distance between them. “I hope you’ll forgive me, Ben. I promise I’ll be better. I’ll behave.”
He studied her for a moment – her long hair, her full lips, her sea-green eyes. She had the potential to blossom into a decent young woman someday if she’d just stop rebelling so hard. For now, he still didn’t trust her as far as he could throw her. “You know that Travis has been arrested, don’t you?” His tone was accusatory. Although it wasn’t directly her fault that Eric had been beaten to a pulp, Travis’ fury had been spurred on by her involvement with him and the return of the ring.
Katy glanced down at her bare feet and whispered, “Yes, I know. Mom told me…”
“It’s because of Eric,” Ben continued. “That guy’s nothing but trouble. I hope you see that now.”
She nodded but said nothing more. As if on cue, Curtis’ Suburban pulled in from the main road and headed toward the house. Ever the alert canine, Derry came bounding across the yard from the stables, prepared to greet the vehicle as soon as it parked. Ben hopped down from the porch and waited alongside the anxious border collie as if in competition for Travis’ attention.
Travis pushed open the passenger door and got out, wincing a fraction from the strain on his bruised midsection. He appeared weary and disheveled, as though he’d been sitting in a jail cell for days rather than hours. But once he’d bent down to scratch Derry behind the ears, he squinted up at Ben with an unexpected grin and asked, “Did you miss me?”
Ben crossed his arms and grinned back. “Not really,” he replied. “Didn’t even notice you were gone, actually.”
Travis smiled as wide as he could with his swollen jaw, then straightened out and pulled Ben into a hug, burying his face against his neck. Ben couldn’t believe how fucking good it felt, and he rested in the tight embrace until Travis whispered in his ear, “There are photographers down at the gate, babe.”
At this announcement, Ben pushed the man away and stepped back. Turned to squint down the driveway but couldn’t see any figures from this distance. “How many?” he demanded.
“Two guys,” Curtis piped in with a smirk, suspiciously pleased by it. “They’ve got large zoom lenses on tripods. Looks like they mean business.” He jumped up the porch steps, pulled open the screen door, and disappeared into the house with a bang.
Ben’s stomach twisted into knots from anxiety. Shielding his eyes from the slant of sunlight with a hand, he scanned the field beyond for signs of life, but the only visible movement was the ebb and flow of tall grass swaying in the midday breeze – no photographers, no cameras, no immediate intrusion that he could decipher. Still, he knew that they were there, somewhere.
“They’re too far away,” Katy said in an attempt to sound positive, to be nice and to ease Ben’s worry. “They can’t see anything from the gate.”
As though noticing his sister’s presence on the porch for the first time since arriving home, Travis barked, “Why the hell aren’t you at school, Kat?”
“Mom said I could stay home… you know… ’cause of everything…” was her timid reply.
“Go get your shoes on,” he instructed. “I’ll drive you in.”
The girl hesitated, opened her mouth as if to protest, then seemed to think better of it and went inside, presumably to put something on her feet and gather her things. In the meantime, Travis stepped over to Ben, wrapped his arms around his waist from behind, and gave him a rough squeeze. With lips pressed to his ear, he said sternly, “Care to push me away again?”
The question was a challenge. Ben knew he needed to reply appropriately. He shut his eyes, recalled the previous nights’ chastisement of sleeping on the cold sofa and being given the silent treatment. No, he had no desire to repeat that kind of disappointment. “I won’t do it again,” he replied, sliding his hands up to cover the strong arms that embraced him. This was where he belonged. The world could go fuck itself if it didn’t approve.
“Glad to hear it,” Travis whispered. He kissed Ben on the nape of the neck, sunk his teeth into the sweaty skin there.
Chills radiated down Ben’s spine, and his cock responded to the sensations. With eyes still closed, he imagined the cameras in the distance clicking half a dozen photos per second. Tomorrow, this embrace would be front page news, with images sold to the highest bidders. It was too late now to avoid the circus, but Ben no longer cared; being in Travis’ arms for the whole world to see was far better than being alone and discontented.
After administering a final bite on Ben’s neck, Travis took a step back and gave him a swift swat on the ass, which left a surprising sting even through the denim. Further chills traveled up Ben’s spine. “Let’s go grab a muffin or something before driving Katy to school,” Travis stated as he headed up the steps. “I feel like I haven’t eaten in days…”
Ben followed him up to the porch and touched his arm to stop him for a moment. “What happened with your arrest?” he asked. “You haven’t said anything. What’s the verdict?”
“The verdict is I’m being charged with second-degree assault,” Travis replied with strange flippancy, as though the fate of his future wasn’t to be taken seriously. He pulled the screen door open and made to step inside but paused and expanded his answer. “The court hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday. Once I’m formerly read the charges, I’ll know more.”
“Jesus Christ, Cooper…” Ben hissed through his teeth. “This doesn’t sound good. Second-degree assault… You’re going to need a good lawyer. I have connections. Let me help with this.”
“It’s not necessary,” Travis said, again with strange flippancy, as though he truly didn’t care. “The one witness they have is the town drunk. This won’t go very far.” He stepped into the house, and when Ben didn’t follow, the screen door slammed shut behind him.
An avalanche of negativity tumbled through Ben’s mind. Second-degree assault… That was serious shit. Travis was delusional to think he could walk away from an indictment like that and not be sentenced with incarceration time.
Travis in prison. Holy fuck.
Fumbling to pull his Blackberry out of his pocket with shaky hands, Ben managed to keep the device from falling and pushed the speed-dial button for Melanie. While it rang, he paced the creaky floorboards, his stomach tied up in knots once more. When finally the woman answered on the fifth ring with her usual “Hello, sunshine” comment, he announced in a fluster, “I don’t care what you have to do or what excuse you have to make for me, Mel. Cancel my Chicago appearance for tomorrow. I’m not fucking going anywhere.”