Can Erica Salven be Saved? Can Anyone?

By Cindy Rae

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations - one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both.” Soren Kierkegaard

*********************************************************

She punched out six of the seven digits she knew by heart, held the phone to her ear, and settled her red, precisely manicured fingernail over the last button. It would connect the call.

It was a three.

Three to get ready. Lucky three. Past, present and future, three. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, three.

Father, Mother, and child.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Erika Salven wondered if Joe Maxwell was a religious man. Or if he believed in ghosts.

Or at least, if he believed in monsters.

Oh, yes. And “Everything goes in threes.” That was another one.

She hung up the phone. Not yet. She wasn't ready yet.

It had been nearly a year. And she had no idea what she was going to say to him.

----

Joe Maxwell flipped a file folder closed. The testimony had gone so-so. The judge was leaning his way.  Probably. It was as good as he was going to get on an abuse charge with no corroboration from the spouse, but a good bit of it from the kids. Most of them. Hell.

Some days, he hated this job.

Of course, his personal life was no great shakes either, he mused. A month into dating his latest consort, she'd decided to go back to her ex-husband. Oh, well. Life and work in the DA's office was like that, he mused. You win a few, you lose a lot. Not that he'd been terrifically attracted to her, mind you. Just that she was a nice woman who knew enough to cheer for the Yankees but was so-so about the Jets. Sigh.

The last woman he'd felt an immediate spark and very strongly about was... no. Don't go there.

Not that he was going anywhere else either.

It was after six, and only Ted was still here, doing pretty much the same thing Joe was. Working late for no money. Sigh.

Ted had danced with Catherine Chandler the night Joe had met Erika Salven. Funny. He'd thought himself so enraptured by Erika's auburn-haired beauty that it was a miracle he remembered little details like that.

But of course, Joe was a lawyer. Even people with a degree from Westfield Law School knew how to notice and remember details. It was what he'd been trained to do.

He distinctly remembered the “detail” of feeling himself in handcuffs, as the firm Erika worked for set him up on a bogus drug charge.

Cathy had come to his door by mid-morning, to talk to him. To save his righteously screwed ass.

Then she had saved Erika's.

A pair of assassins had trapped the two women in a stairwell. Cathy had sent the one dressed like a security guard over the side of the stairs, and to his lifelong paralysis. Broken back. Oh, well. He had a special cell in Rikers. Turned out trying to kill Erika and Cathy hadn't been his first rodeo.

The other contract killer had simply wound up dead. Again, oh, well, and nobody much cared if a hit man for hire on the payroll of Proctor and Brannigan made it down a flight of stairs with his head turned around backwards. Cassut was dead. That was that. A long trail of dirty money tied him to Evan Brannigan, not to mention the bogus security guard’s confession. Open and shut.

Erika's testimony had cleared Joe's name. And sent at least one of her bosses to jail. The Taylor case had gone forward with Joe “carrying the ball” in court, and the conviction had been a resounding one. The mayor himself had called with congratulations.

It was a day that would have made Joe's dad proud, had he lived to see it.

His mom had baked a lasagna, and both his sisters had called from out of state to congratulate him.

Joe had rarely felt less like he'd “won” anything in his life.

The realization hit, and then stayed, that he'd lost more. Much more. Erika Salven had played him. "Like a fiddle," he told Cathy.

He wasn't quite sure what he missed more: his old self-confidence (Joe Maxwell, Crime Fighter) or his heart.

It all left something in him that still felt bereft, months after.

He hated that he was sometimes unsure about whether or not he ever wanted to see her again.

Hated that while her feelings for him may have been contrived, his definitely were not. Damn, that was so unfair.

Hated that he wasn't exactly sure what those feelings were before the last notes of that tune that had got played on that fiddle turned from a love song into a funeral dirge.

Something inside Joe felt just a little used. Just a little played. Just a little dead.

It bothered him that he wasn't getting past it like he should be.

Most days, he was sure he wanted her to call again, just so he could be the one to slam down the phone. There. I hate you. You lied to me, and I hate you.

Other days, he just wanted her to call. And had no idea where the conversation would go from there.

It was idiocy, and he hated idiots. Especially when he had the sinking feeling the idiot was him.

Snagging his grey suit coat off the coat tree, he shut his office door and told Ted not to stay too late, knowing it was a worthless bit of advice.

Ted adjusted his glasses and nodded, flipping over another page. It was only the third case of this sort he'd ever brought to trial. He wanted it to go his way. Of course he did. Something about bookmaking. Something... Joe sighed, not quite remembering.

He should know what the “something” was, and how it was going. That's what they paid him to do. Know how his office ran, and make sure it was going right.

"Ted, you need any help with that?"

"I got it, Joe." Ted waved him off. "Just making sure I've got where the inconsistencies are in the depositions."

He was a good lawyer. Give him a couple more years and he might even be a great one.

Hell, who knows? Maybe what was left of Proctor and Brannigan (now just “Proctor”) would come hire him away someday. Or one of the other firms would.

"Don't stay much later. They ain't paying you overtime, and the judge don't like to see you show up looking ragged. Makes 'em think you've been out all night partying,” Joe chided.

"Dee will see to it I get a hot meal, and keep me out of the bars," Ted answered, naming his fiancée. Ted was a lucky man. He went back to work with a highlighting pen.

"Yeah. ‘Night."

"'Night, Joe," Ted answered, clearly still wanting to work.

Joe shut the glass and steel door behind him, wishing for a “Dee” in his own life.

 Or at least a decent dog. No, no dogs. His lease forbade it.

He yanked down his tie and waited for the elevator. It would probably be empty, unless someone like him was struggling to get home before seven. Edie did that, sometimes. So did Cathy Chandler. Both were home now. Or at least, they should be. Edie had left right on time, Catherine a few minutes after.

Not for the first time, Joe wondered why she gave up corporate law for this gig. And more, why she stayed.

It was one thing to wake up one morning and decide you'd grown a social conscience. It was quite another to still be nursing it, three years later. He'd thought she would not last a month. Turns out, he'd been wrong.

It felt like he was on a streak for that lately, where women were concerned.

----

It was a luncheon that had turned into a forced march, complete with rubber chicken and a bad dessert. The speech had been uninspiring, and made up for that by also being tediously long. Sigh. Joe owed her for this one.

And just when Catherine thought it couldn't get any worse...

"Hello, Catherine."

Chanel No. 5 hit her nose just as an all-too-familiar face hit her line of vision.

"Erika. I didn't realize you were back in town." Catherine stared up into eyes that were the brown side of hazel. Shrewd eyes. But warm ones, too. Erika had been one of the... what had Ted called her? One of the “Young Turks” at Proctor and Brannigan.

If she was one of the Turks, god help the Ottoman Empire, Cathy thought.

"I didn't leave town. I just... left the part of it I used to frequent,” Erika told her.

The rich part or the part where you slept with people to try and manipulate them? Catherine’s thoughts were less than charitable.

But what she said was, "Sometimes, a change of scene can do you good."

Erika sat down next to her. Damn it.

"I'm leaving in a moment,” Cathy stated. "You might want to---"

"How is Joe, Catherine?" She asked it without preamble.

Catherine paused and weighed what to say next carefully. She'd rehearsed this moment a time or two, mentally.

"Don't you think you should ask Joe?" She kept her voice gentle. It would not do to rile Erika.

"Honestly? I'm afraid he might slam the door in my face."

"He might," Catherine allowed. "Then again, he might open it, and want to talk to you. The two of you kind of left the door for that open, as I recall." She reached down for her purse.

"Is he seeing anyone, now?” Erika asked.

"Erika...” Catherine was clearly uncomfortable. "He might be. He was. I honestly don’t know. Joe and I aren't close that way. I don't necessarily know about his...affairs."

"And he doesn't know about yours?" Erika asked, keeping her voice courtroom steady.

Warning bells jangled.

"That would be right. Have a nice---"

"Who saved us in that stairwell, Catherine?"

And there it was. Boom. Pull the trigger, hit the little ceramic plate, and watch the pieces scatter.

Catherine kept her poker face firmly in place. "I heard the noises, same as you," Catherine responded, giving it her best “lawyer voice.” "I pitched the guard over the rail, and Cassut fell. Lucky for us." She'd rehearsed the sentences word for word.

"Lucky." The redhead knew the sandy-haired woman was lying through her perfect teeth.

"If you see Joe, please tell him I'd like to see him again. I'm working Legal Aid, on McIntyre Street."

McIntyre Street? That was Rolley territory. What territory there was, anyway.

Erika laid a vellum card on the table, her intention clear. Pick it up and give it to Joe, or the questions would get a lot more uncomfortable.

Catherine wanted desperately to stay out of Erika Salven's crosshairs. It wasn't so much what she knew. It was what she was capable of finding out. She was a terrific mixture of smart and ruthless, with just enough conscience thrown in to make her a very loose cannon.

Catherine picked up the card, hating being in between Erika and Joe. Vincent could be at risk, here.

"I need to get back to work," was the only assurance she gave.

Erika walked away from the table, content that Joe would at least get her business card before the day was out.

---

Joe remembered the night he'd walked Erika all the way to Battery Park. That was the Taj Mahal compared to this. He knocked on the door, hard enough so she would hear.

A deadbolt slid back, along with a chain, a standard lock, and a sliding lever. There were bars on the windows. Nice neighborhood.

"So. This what 'contrition' looks like?" he asked her, eyeing the cracked masonry. This was a far cry from where she'd been.

"Maybe. They say after contrition comes absolution." She was expecting him. After speaking to Catherine Chandler, she should be.

"Is that what you're hoping for, Erika?" he asked her, stepping in. She looked beautiful, even if the neighborhood didn't.

She also looked as if she was expecting him to strike her, on the one hand, and hoping he'd hold her, on the other. He did neither.

"It's what we're all hoping for, isn't it, Joe? Confession? Contrition and absolution?" she asked him, ushering him through a waiting room in to what now passed for her office.

 The fax machine looked new. The desk looked old. She opened up a walnut cabinet that held a couple of decanters. At least she still had some trappings of her days with Proctor and Brannigan. Joe wondered if there was a china tea set around somewhere.

"Working for Legal Aid isn't absolution, it's penance,” Joe told her. She looked a little thinner. Red hair he'd once had his hands full of still fell in a curling cut around her shoulders.

"Maybe I needed penance." She uncapped the crystal decanter. "Needed to give away my degree for a while," she told him. She looked elegant in a dusky green skirt and matching wrap blouse that set off her hazel eyes.

"How long?" he asked, letting his hands rest in his pockets, stretching the fabric of his trousers tight.

She splashed liquor into two heavy-bottomed highball glasses. Johnny Walker Red. She remembered he drank it.

"I've been here since... well. Since pretty much the day Evan Brannigan went to jail. I heard about Phillip Taylor, by the way." She handed him his glass, and saluted him with hers. "Congratulations."

"May they rot in the same cell together." Joe saluted back with his glass, but didn't drink. It didn't pay to get drunk around Erika Salven. She took the tiniest of sips, and rolled the drink between her two palms.

"Cathy Chandler says you dropped by,” Joe said.

"I might have bumped into her at a luncheon," Erika ventured.

Horse shit. He had been in a room with her for five minutes, and she was already lying. He set the glass down.

"Have a good night, Erika." He moved to leave.

"Yes. I arranged to be there," she said quickly. Then, "Cathy Chandler isn't a perfect person, Joe."

"And that's not a name you put in your mouth with anything but respect, Erika.” His voice was unwavering, and his brown eyes held a warning.

"I'm not saying I don't respect her." At least this time she sounded honest. "I owe her." Yes, that was the truth. Cathy had saved her hide in that stairwell.

 "I'm just saying... there's more there than what’s on the surface, Joe. I don't want you to get hurt."

"You don't...? You? You don't?" His voice was incredulous with the anger he'd nursed for too many months. "You don't want me to get hurt, Erika? Oh. Okay. That is rich. You don't want me to get hurt." But he made no closer move to the door.

Erika held up her hands, knowing she deserved every syllable of it, still trying to make Joe understand without being seen as a jealous bitch.

"I know. I know. I deserve that, and worse, I do. But you have to listen." She wrung her hands a little. Joe remembered the feeling of those amazingly long fingers on his body.

"Catherine Chandler is...” Erika looked to the side. "Something in the stairwell, and I can't even describe it. I heard it, more than saw."

It took him a second to catch up with her sentence. Erika looked like she was fumbling for words on a speech she'd tried to rehearse but wasn't lying about. She was too good a lawyer to be stammering her way through this, whatever it was. And it had to do with Cathy.

"She was holding on to me, keeping my face turned some.” Erika demonstrated by turning her head a little. "I was scared, my hand was up, and my eyes were even shut for some of it. A lot of it." Again, she showed the posture of someone in a defensive position.

"Someone... something in there, with us. Like an animal. But big. In there. Protecting us. I was so stupid, at first I just thought it was all about me. That someone had come to help me. But it wasn't."

Her dialogue was disjointed. Not readily understandable. But Joe did. Because he knew Catherine Chandler, had known her for three years, and he knew the sometimes strange things that tended to happen around her.

Joe stopped and stared. "Did you see him?"

"It. It was an 'it,' Joe, and..." Her sharp lawyer's mind realized something, based on his expression. "This has happened before. Around her."

It was no sense lying. Erika Salven could pull the public records on Cathy Chandler's cases as easily as he could. Had.

"He's tall," she described, remembering a flash. "Over six feet. Heavy. I remember feeling him when he jumped down the stairwell to get Cassut. I had a feeling of a black cape, maybe kind of a hood, pulled up?" She made the gesture. "That's all."

"What did he say?"

"Nothing. I don't think he can speak. He... it... roared. Like a lion."

Outside the Bronx Zoo and the movies, Joe felt certain Erika Salven had never heard a lion roar in her life.

"Did Catherine say anything to him? Say a name?"

"No."

"You didn't hear her say 'Vincent’?"

"I said ‘no.’ Who is Vincent?" she asked.

"Beats me.  Some guy she was seeing, at some point. I think he was married, because she never brought him around." Joe repaid honesty with honesty. Carefully. "I only know because she got grabbed for a couple days, and I went through her apartment with a special investigator. What did you see, Erika?"

"This has happened before."

"Answer me."

"Joe, be careful around her. Around him. He's dangerous. I didn't see him. I couldn't, not really. My ankle felt half torn off and I was in pain. My head was down and my hair was in the way, and she was holding on to me, and I really thought I was going to die." She shook her head, remembering.

"A roaring sound. A dark... something. A cape or a blanket, something black. The light in the stairwell was bad. I thought she was shielding my head, and I remembered being grateful, thinking, ‘Here's this woman who despises me, trying to help me.’ But I think she was just trying to keep my eyes turned. Keep me from seeing. I felt him land. Felt the hard vibration of it, on the metal stairs. I don't know what he was, or where he came from. But in two seconds, a trained killer was dead at our feet, his neck snapped."

"Could have happened when he fell down the stairs." Joe gestured. It was reasonable.

"It didn't." She sounded damn certain.

Her voice continued. "I looked up the autopsy report. His neck was broken. I think it was that way before he fell. His wrist was snapped. The one he held the gun in." Her meaning was clear. He'd been disarmed, killed, and shoved backward, all in a matter of seconds.

Joe put his hands back in his pants pockets.

"This does not make things square with us, Erika. And she did save your life. Or he did. It. Whatever."

"I know it doesn't, Joe. I'm just... asking you. Please. Be careful around Catherine Chandler. There's more to her than there seems."

"I've known her for three years, Erika, and she's saved my hide more than once, counting from you. I don't know what this is. But I know that I trust her."

"Maybe that isn't 'trust,' Joe." Now she was jealous. And they both knew it.

"Maybe it isn't. But I've learned to accept things I can count on, without asking a lot of questions, lately." He meant to hurt her with that last one. It felt good to draw a little blood, even if she still fascinated him on some level.

She wasn't even slowing down.

"Isn't that what we're supposed to do, Joe? Ask questions? Odd stance, for a lawyer."

"Ain't it though." He picked up his Johnny Walker. It had been a while since he'd sipped straight whiskey.

"You want a question from me?" he asked her. "How about the one we both know I'm dying to ask, and you're probably going to lie over. Was any of it real? Or was it all fake?" He took a sip. Needed it, for this.

A tear fell from her beautiful and artfully made-up eyes.

"I swear I have had my hand on the phone more times than I can count. I've punched in your number. It ends in a three."

"Home or office?"

"Yes," she responded, knowing it was true of both numbers, and knowing she'd been about to dial them both, on several occasions, depending on what time of day it was.

"Funny. It never rang." His brown eyes had a sardonic look.

"I know." She let the tear escape. "It did, in my head. Then you hung up when you knew it was me."

He drained the glass, surprising them both, and adjusted his coat, buttoning it.

"It would be the smart thing to do, Erika." His eyes were sad as he said it.

She nodded at that. "I just got lost, Joe." She'd said that before, once. "Haven't you ever been lost?"

"Yeah. I was, once. I was in your bedroom when it happened."

She looked down, not sure just how many ways he meant that. Did he mean she'd been a mistake, and he'd been “lost” to be with her? Or that he felt so much for her that being with her gave him that “lost in your arms” sensation?

"I swear that wasn't faked." She barely whispered it.

"So. You swear you came? Good. Because I know I did."

It was unbelievably crude, and hurtful. And it felt good to say it, even though it felt like hell at the same time. He’d bloodied her. Got his pound of flesh.

Like so much else between them, it really didn’t make him feel better, even when it felt long overdue.

"I deserved that. I know I did. Whatever you think of me, I promise I've thought worse."

He’d give her this; she could take a punch. It didn’t matter. The anger that had been chewing at his insides still simmered.

"I doubt it. You're not a whore, Erika. You made no money off me. There's that, at least. But you don't know what it was like, that next morning, to be sitting in my apartment with my world blown apart, looking at my mug shot in the papers."

He set the empty glass down, just a little too hard. The rim of the glass felt hard against his palm.

She lifted a perfect eyebrow. "Actually, maybe I am a whore. Proctor settled a fat check on me not to sue the whole firm. To just hold Evan Brannigan personally responsible."

He blinked, that she would reveal that. She didn't have to.

"Ah. Good to know. Thanks for clearing up that crime still pays." He was trying not to hate her. Which interfered with the part of him that was trying not to hate both of them, right now.

"I gave most of it to charity," she said. "Used some of it to set up this place." She held her hands out to indicate her palatial digs.

"Did you buy so much as a tube of lipstick with it?" he asked her.

She knew what he was implying. He was asking if she had used any of it for herself.

"I swear I didn't."

He felt the whiskey hitting his stomach. It burned. Hurt and felt good at the same time. That always seemed to happen around her.

"Good night, Erika," he said, flipping the lock and opening the door to the anteroom. "Don't forget to lock up after me. This ain't the greatest neighborhood, and there's no security guard near the door."

Erika crossed to do as he bid her, wondering if he was aware that he'd just expressed concern for her safety, however back-handedly.

"Last time I had one of those, he tried to shoot me,” she told him, letting him hear the irony in her voice, just before she shot the deadbolt.

Neither was sure if they would see the other again. Or if they did, where and when that might be.

Joe turned back toward McIntyre Street, lost in his thoughts.

----

"I did something stupid tonight, Pop," Joe confessed to a black and white photo an hour later. He was back in his apartment. His Father's picture, frozen in time, stared back at him. "I fell in love with someone. Someone I don't think I can have."

Brown eyes very like his own stared back at him. The uniform had been pressed and starched, the crease on his uniform slacks eternally sharp. Mama Maxwell was a stickler for details like that.

"She's complicated. It's complicated." He nudged a corner of the photo upward a hair. That was better.

"I should forget about it, and move on. She has secrets, and I don't know what to do about that. I'm not sure why I can't just... get past it."

He sipped his second drink that night and saluted his father as he felt the emptiness of his apartment.

Beside the photo was his law degree. Westfield. Class of '82. Cum laude. Good enough to get Phillip Taylor and Even Brannigan matching jail cells, he thought with a little pride.

"I'm going to..." He let the sentence drop. He wasn't sure what he was going to do. "I don't know. Maybe she can be saved. Maybe she can't. I'm not sure."

He held his finger to the light switch, preparing to shut everything down for the night.

"I just know that, no matter what this is, I'm going to see it through. Somehow."

The light clicked off, and Joe Maxwell made peace with that resolution.

---fin---