Sharon Summers began her relationship with Nick Forte as his receptionist and secretary. Moved up to general manager of Forte Investigations with a private investigator’s license of her own. Now she’s a large part of Forte’s conscience, the person—along with his daughter, Caroline—most responsible for keeping him tethered to the man he was and not drifting away into the man he sometimes threatens to become. Forte once described their relationship as occupying “the places where the relationships of friends, lovers, and families left seams. In the few years I’d known her, we had become the mortar that held the bricks of our lives together.”
Here an abused wife has just left Forte’s office.
I stared at the open door like she might come back. Sharon paused at the threshold. She knew I’d tell her if I wanted to talk about it, and wouldn’t take it personally if I didn’t. I filled her in on the other night, and the relevant parts of today’s conversation.
“I don’t get it,” I said when she was caught up. “Why would she stay? It doesn’t matter how much she loves him, or he says he loves her. He’s going to beat her again, probably soon. Maybe even worse than he might have because I interrupted him last time. She knows that. I saw it in her face. But she’s not ready to leave. Have you ever known anyone in a situation like that?”
“Better than you think.” I rolled my eyes up to look at her. She stayed in the threshold between our offices. The infamous pile of summonses behind her partially obscured my view of her beloved ficus. Her voice sounded much farther away. “Pete used to get rough when he drank. I tried to stand up to him and hit him back a few times. That just made him madder, and he was too big for me to handle. All I did was make it worse.”
This was news to me. Sharon always struck me as the most bullshit-intolerant woman I’d ever known. Finding out she’d been through something like this was almost like finding out Henry Aaron corked his bat. Almost. Questions ran through my mind faster than I could ask them. What I said was, “How long?”
Sharon’s expression never changed. Her voice never wavered, maintained that far-away timbre. “Five hundred and forty-two days from the first time he hit me until I told him I’d kill him if he ever put a hand to me again. I told him as I was leaving to pick up the boys from daycare. I never went back.”
“Why didn’t I go back? Or why’d he hit me?”
“Why’d you wait so long?”
She gave me a look I couldn’t have identified if I hadn’t seen it twenty minutes earlier. “I guess I was embarrassed. I know how she feels.” Turned her head to indicate the door Josie had just left through. “Everyone says hitting a woman’s a terrible thing. No one wants to admit she married a man who’d do such a terrible thing, right? So I figured I must have driven him to do it.”
“So it’s your fault?”
“You don’t think that way for a while. You think it must be something you’re doing wrong, or something you should know about. Then you start thinking maybe you deserve it, because there’s something wrong with you. You know you should leave, but you’re afraid to trust your judgment because trusting your judgment’s what got you here in the first place.” The words ran out of her like blood from a picked scab. Just a little at first, then the momentum built like the early departures were sucking the others out to join them. “I heard more than you think. I never listen in with your visitors, but I knew why she was here.”
“How? I didn’t tell you about Sunday night until just now.”
“She had that look.”
Sharon shook her head. “You can’t see it. Only someone who’s been through it can recognize it. Junkies probably see it in other junkies. Gays, too, maybe.” She looked down and away from me and blushed. I’d known her seven years and couldn’t remember ever seeing her do that. “So I listened. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Tell me what you think.”
“Her parents are immigrants with crappy jobs, right? Her brothers and sisters do okay, but they’re worker bees. She gets her associate’s degree and this rich, practically famous doctor marries her. She lives in a great house, has all kinds of money to spend on her family, nice clothes, someone to clean her house for her. She must feel like a princess.
“So he beats up her sometimes. I think he probably does worse than that. It doesn’t matter, ’cause she’s thinking, ‘What do I have to complain about?’ She knows nothing’s free. Her parents worked two jobs each. Her brothers and sisters pitched in for all the weddings. She figures, this is what a nice house costs. She’ll put up with it even if she doesn’t care about the money and the car because she’s ashamed to go to her family and ruin their fantasy, too. She’s living a lie, and she’s Catholic and it’s a mortal sin to –”
“Sharon.” She never got like this. Sharon didn’t cover things up; she handled them. The altercation after WhirlyBall had passed over her like a humid breeze: mildly uncomfortable, immediately forgotten. I honest to God didn’t know if she was about to get violent, hysterical, or calm down and walk away. And I didn’t want to find out. “It’s okay. I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Is she a client?”
“Not yet.” Sharon cocked her head, brow furrowed with doubt. “I can’t spot some of things you can, but I can tell when someone’s about ready to do something. She’ll be back. And don’t worry. I’m not going to have two Eloise Marshalls on my conscience.”