Cry Uncle(7)

By: Judith Arnold

Pamela shifted uncomfortably, causing the chair’s hinges to squeak. She crossed her legs, traced the rim of her glass with her finger, and managed a feeble smile. How did one answer such a question? How on earth did one go about measuring decency? Why did the mischievous glint in his eyes make her wish, for a fleeting instant, that she wasn’t quite so decent?

“It would seem to me,” she said, steering clear of his provocative question, and his even more provocative grin, “that this child...Lizard—” she tried not to shudder at the name “—hasn’t really known any family other than you. Why would a judge award custody of her to two total strangers? I would think that after the trauma of losing her parents, the system wouldn’t want to traumatize her again.”

“I would think so, too,” said Joe, leaning back and balancing one leg across the other knee. The position drew her attention to the faded strip of denim covering his fly. She drank some wine and was careful to keep her gaze on his face when she lowered her glass. “Thing of it is,” he continued, “Lawton and Joyce are rich. They’re respectable. They make fortunes pushing papers around. They listen to Bach. They’re such fine, fine people.” Sarcasm oozed from every syllable.

“Do you think that marrying me would make you look respectable to a judge?”

“Personally, I happen to think I’m just about as respectable as I can stand to be. Mary DiNardi, however—who’s taking me for three hundred and fifty bucks an hour, so she’d better know what she’s talking about—doesn’t exactly agree. She says I’ve got to project stability and maturity and all that kind of thing. And a wife—a nice, neat, well-behaved wife—is just the ticket.”

“What does...Lizard think of this?” Pamela wondered whether she’d ever be capable of using the child’s nickname without cringing.

“She doesn’t know anything about a custody challenge. All she knows is that Lawton and Joyce are these two mysterious people who’ve been sending her Christmas and birthday cards with funny Singapore stamps on them. She has no idea some shit-for-brains judge could rip her out of her home and force her to live with a couple of snobs she’s never even talked to. Last time she saw them was probably at her christening or thereabouts. These folks aren’t her family. I am—and Kitty, and Lois, and Birdie, and Brick. And my mother when she’s in town.”

If Joe Brenner’s social circle included characters with names like Birdie and Brick, Pamela supposed it was no wonder he called his niece Lizard.

“Anyway, what I’m looking for here is just a temporary arrangement. A year, tops. I’ve got a three-bedroom house, so you’d have your own room. If you met someone and fell in love, I’d only ask that you be discreet. You’re supposed to be the decent one in this situation.” He tempered his words with a smile.

“If we had separate bedrooms—” no if about it, she thought wryly “—wouldn’t that make it obvious that the marriage is a sham?”

“Well, of course, if some social worker stopped by to check us out, we’d have to put on a little lovey-dovey show for her. I don’t see that as an insurmountable problem.”

“But Lizard—” wince “—would realize something was weird between us, wouldn’t she?”

“Number one, Lizard is five years old, and I honestly don’t think she has any idea what husbands and wives do behind closed doors. Number two, people down here hang pretty loose about things. If a couple want separate rooms, they have separate rooms. No big deal.”

Pamela mulled over what he’d told her, and she wasn’t entirely pleased. The separate rooms, the discretion, all the business-like details of the arrangement suited her fine. But the idea of presenting herself as a perfect wife and mother to a five-year-old... What did she know about raising kids? How were she and Joe going to trick a little girl into believing they were a genuine couple? As scant as Pamela’s knowledge of children was, she couldn’t shake the understanding that children were a lot harder to fool than family-court judges and social workers.

Beyond that minor misgiving, there was another problem, a much more troubling one: Pamela was in danger.

No matter how much she wanted to elude that danger, she couldn’t do it by hiding behind a five-year-old girl. What if—God forbid! —Mick Morrow somehow tracked Pamela down? She didn’t want to die—but she wasn’t going to save her own life by placing an innocent child in harm’s way.

She began to shake her head. “If it’s money you’re worried about,” Joe said, misreading her hesitation, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m not rich. But we could work something out. I’m willing to support you, put you on my insurance, pay all the expenses—”

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