The elevator dinged and opened. Inhaling a deep breath, Ashley strode out and down the corridor. She halted at the doorway filled with an opaque glass panel and letters naming the attorneys within.
Before laying a hand on the knob, she checked her silver-banded watch and allowed the intervening seconds to pass, bringing her closer to top of the hour and her scheduled meeting time. The watch’s pearlescent surface glimmered, like the Christmas lights when she had lifted the lid of the small case and found the jeweled time-keeper inside. She recalled the hug, her father’s beaming smile, and his stern reminder to make every second count.
This afternoon, the two hands pointed straight at their targets, and she knew no more delaying tactics remained. If she lingered any longer, a tactful message from Bernice would make her phone bleat, and in time, her father would worry. Not to mention the growing impatience of the police officers and detectives stewing in the building’s main lobby.
Putting the four keepers of the peace out of her mind, she seized the knob and entered the office.
“I was about to call you,” said Bernice from her seat behind the stump of desk occupying one half of the vacant waiting room. She deposited the phone back into its cradle and pressed the intercom instead. “Mr. Mason?”
Ashley cringed at the static version of her father’s voice coming through the speakers. The tinny echo seemed far too frail.
“Mrs. Grant is here to see you,” said Bernice.
Her father’s pause nearly tripped Ashley’s heart.
He already knows it’s over, she thought.
“Show her in,” said her father.
Bernice stood and rounded her clutter, her wide hips giving the piles of folders and paperwork enough of a berth to avoid tipping them onto the checkered carpet.
“I know the way,” said Ashley.
“This gives me a chance to stretch my legs,” said Bernice. Her nylons hushed against one another, like a muted cricket, and her knee length skirt thumped with every stride.
Ashley clutched her purse strap and followed with a quieter effort in her flats, slacks, and woolen coat. Only the briefcase dangling from her other hand altered her gait, the burden feeling ten times what the contents and leather truly weighed.
Marching along the hallways, Bernice led past a darkened conference room and the closed doors of other offices. Murmurs worked through the wooden panels, but Bernice spoke above them.
“Did you have a nice time in the Keys this summer?”
“We always do,” said Ashley.
The pit in her stomach expanded as she remembered the smiling faces of her children diving off the dock under her mother’s watchful gaze. She had been on the porch, looking down on them on when her father had joined her, when he had first warned her.
It’s too late now, she reasoned. Diverting her thoughts back to inane banter, Ashley forced a smile onto her lips. “How have you been?”
“Oh fine,” said Bernice. She heaved a sigh heavy with unspoken problems too numerous to occupy the brief stretch of corridor. “We make do.”
“Don’t we all?”
“Mmm hmm,” said Bernice.
They reached the hallway’s dead end, and she rapped upon the lone door.
“Is that you Bernice?”
Ashley adjusted her grip on the briefcase’s handle as her father’s footsteps made the floor creak.
“Yes, Mr. Mason,” said Bernice. “I’ve brought Mrs. Grant.”
A round of paper shuffling and a thump followed.
“He’s been like this since Tuesday,” said Bernice, lowering her voice and frowning at the door.
Ashley winced. His message from that day repeated in her ears.
“Recuse yourself, Ashley,” he had said, repeating the words from their earlier porch interlude. “Trust me on this, please.”
But I didn’t, mused Ashley. I was stubborn and thick headed, just like you’d taught me to be.
The shifting within the office ebbed. “You can come in now.”
Bernice opened the door, and Ashley sensed the woman tense through the thick layers of her tweed skirt and polyester blouse. Within the office, the array of cardboard boxes stacked in neat rows gave the appearance of a fort wall under construction.
Bernice laid a hand on the doorframe. “What’s all this, Mr. Mason?”
“I’ll explain later, Bernice. I don’t want to keep Mrs. Grant waiting.”
“Of course.” Bernice pivoted, allowing passage into the office.
Ashley endured the flick of Bernice’s dark eyes as the other woman swept over her, the boxes, her father standing with his balding head bowed over his desk, and back again.
“Thanks, Bernice,” whispered Ashley as she stepped inside.
She halted with her back to the entry, and fought not to jump when the door closed with a clack. The truth seemed to hang in the air, thickening an impassible divide. Forcing down a steadying gulp of saliva flavored of day-old coffee, she lifted her chin and waited for her father to look up.
He did so once Bernice’s footsteps dwindled.
The whites of his eyes had dulled; the sag of his face heavier now than it had been in the Key’s tropical heat. His shoulders sloped beneath his dress shirt, and the Windsor knot in his tie hung loose. Even the suit coat, draped on a rack’s limb, listed as if drenched.
“You wanted to see me, Mrs. Grant.”
Every muscle in Ashley’s body clenched. “Dad—”
“Please.” He raised a silencing hand, his golden wedding band catching the afternoon light cramming through the venetian blinds. “I’d like to keep this from becoming personal. I’m sure my daughter would understand.”
Ashley avoided a cringe, and replied with a curt nod as she worked words back onto her tongue. “My investigations have brought to light the real cause of the accusations placed upon my client. I wanted to see if you had anything to say on the matter.”
“Doesn’t this say enough?” Mason swept his arm at the organized crates.
“I’m not sure what this says,” said Ashley.
“I’m leaving, retiring before this is all exposed. I’m not going to let my mistake sink this whole firm, not after I’ve spent a lifetime building it.”
Ashley’s mouth parched. “So it was just you?”
Mason retrieved one nearby box and set it onto the center of his desk with a thud. “You’ll find your answers, all your evidence, in here. Log books, names, the account numbers.”
Inching forward, Ashley peered inside. Journals and typed sheets stood in neat stacks, the bindings worn and edges crinkled with age.
She scowled and looked back up at his pinched face. “Is this your way of striking a deal?”
“It’s my way of coming clean,” said Mason. He sighed and another decade seemed to claim his features. “I’ve kept quiet about this too long.”
Ashley’s grip tightened on her briefcase and purse. “And you tried to make it longer.”
Mason lifted his downturned gaze, and a fire ignited in the brown depths, one she hadn’t seen since she’d been caught with Adam Jenkins in his truck after the senior year homecoming game.
“I tried to keep you out of it,” said Mason, his tone as torrid as his gaze. “I didn’t want you involved.”
“How could I not be involved?”
“Not like this. Not in Reynolds’ defense. Anyone else would have followed the same breadcrumbs. I didn’t need you unearthing what I’ve done.”
The heat in his tone sent her blood boiling. “You would rather I’d been on the sidelines? Ignorant?”
“At least you would have been on my side, in my corner…Now….” He looked away as if the sight of her pained him.
Anger wrapped around Ashley’s heart, twining with guilt and sudden grief. She eased her voice. “I am on your side, Dad.”
“Dillon Reynolds is innocent.”
“I know that,” said Mason, his words a near growl. He stared into the box, the silence growing to smothering proportions. When he spoke again, his voice had faded. “Are they with you?”
Mason nodded without shifting his gaze.
“They’re downstairs,” said Ashley. “I wanted the chance…the chance to talk with you before the arrest.”
He lifted his eyes from the box, the weariness flooding his gaze. “Well. What more do you want to talk about?”
Ashley gulped, wetting her throat for the one question she had come to ask. “Why?”
Mason scowled. “Why what?”
“Why did you do it?”
She flinched as his eyes hardened in to muddy rocks.
“I think that’s best told to my lawyer.”
“It was because of us, wasn’t it? You did this for us?”
Mason’s shoulders sagged. The hard line of his jaw softened. He plunged into his chair, the leather groaning, and casters squeaking for grease.
“You could have told us,” said Ashley. She wove through the clutter and rounded the desk, dropping to a knee by his side. “We would have understood.”
He scoffed. “Understood not going to college? Understood having to move to a smaller house? Understood leaner Christmases? No summer trips? Of cutting back on everything?”
He gripped the armrests as if fearful of sinking through the chair’s seat. Ashley laid her hand atop of his, shivering at the chill of her father’s flesh and the frailty of his hand. The bones seemed hollow, the veins ridges of ice.
Mason hung his head, his voice emerging like an echoed whisper. “I wanted to give you everything. And then, I…couldn’t stop. These people, these promises, they wrap around you so tightly, when you want to get out they’re strangling.”
He drifted his gaze over the boxes, and chuckled, a bitter, pained sound. “I guess the noose has finally tightened.”
“No,” he whispered. He set his hand on hers and squeezed. Vitality seemed to rush into his touch. “It’s better this way. This way, it’s over. I don’t have to hide. I don’t have to lie. I don’t have to worry about Venzio or his thugs anymore.”
Ashley fell into his eyes, and they glimmered with the weak smile curling his lips.
“Would you help me with the last part, Ashley?”
“Of course, Dad.”
She fetched his coat and hat from the rack. Holding them both, she hovered as he hauled himself from the indented curves of his chair, ones worn from decades of occupation. He requested the coat with one hand, slipped it over his shoulders and donned his hat, drawing leathery fingers along the brim.
“Take that one,” he said, pointing at the box of ledgers and notebooks.
“I’ll send the lawyers back for them,” said Ashley.
His faint grin wobbled, and he tipped his hat forward, shading his watering eyes. He stuck out his elbow and Ashley looped her arm through the offered crook.
As they navigated the cardboard fortress, Ashley couldn’t say who led who, or who needed more support. Mason opened the door, and they crossed the threshold. She waited as he took a final glimpse of the room where so much had passed, where the white of good intentions had smeared into gray.
Steel seemed to drift into his spine as he shut the sight of his deeds behind the door.
“It’s over,” he whispered.
Giving her hand a pat, they turned and side by side walked into the abyss of waiting repercussions.