I will never forget the day I stepped in her back yard. Tall, red haired, in her mid 30s, Nicole was destined to become my first ‘case’. Her handshake was soft. Slender hands and long fingers were rather elegant. Ah, yes, she offered me coffee. I remember settling in the woven lawn chair and placing the voice recorder on the table, the glass surface of which was pleasantly cold under my palms. I took my first sip of coffee and rested my palms on the glass surface leaving sweaty handprints.
I was hot, terribly hot. My only decent suit jacket was one of thick pleated wool. You know the kind, with patches on the elbows. And it was August in North Carolina; but I was under self-imposed pressure to look ‘professional’, so I put it on anyway. To make matters worse, I was a nerve wreck. Although, if you think about it, why wouldn’t I be nervous? I was about to talk to a woman, who was kept in a basement for five years and fed dog kibble.
“I still have dreams about it”, – she whispered. As she spoke, an image of wilted leaves lightly shuffling in the forest treetops crept in my imagination. Or maybe I thought of it because her yard was surrounded by the forest, and I could hear wind going though the branches. One way or another, in my mind Nicole’s speech and shallow wind became one.
“Tell me more about those dreams.”
“Not sure I want to…”
“Alright, where would you like to start?”
“From my wedding day. I was the happiest bride in the world. I was in love, and he was a perfect gentleman.”
Before I go on with the Nicole’s story, let me introduce myself. My name is Arthur Coppola. I am a … Well, who am I anyway? I think of myself as a guy who occasionally does bad things in the name of greater good. I bring vengeance to the domestic violence victims.
I almost hear the reader pause at my last sentence, frown her eyebrows and say, “What in the world?..” To those of you who just said that, here’s my retort: the world is a cruel place. All brides fantasize about their happy lives ahead, no matter what combination of elements makes up their version of happiness. For some of them, things go terribly wrong. Say, before the marriage, he would bring her flowers after each fight, but after the wedding he would bring only jealousy, complaints and accusations. That would change too. Soon, coming home from work, he would greet her with intimidating silence; the special kind that is like a room full of gas, and all it takes is to strike a match.
As a man, I wouldn’t fall for the shit these women fall for: that he only wants us to be a good family; or he is underappreciated at work, that’s why he drinks; or… here comes my favorite. He loves me and he can’t live without me. And he surely will kill himself if I leave. But the women believe these and countless other lies delivered by their husbands, or boyfriends, or fathers. After a thousand’s second chance, things eventually go beyond repair.
I am sure you are desperate to know what is my angle in all of this. Fair enough. It’s quite simple. My mother was killed when I was 13. My father was a classic case of an abusive husband, violent, and regularly drunk. One day, he came home, naturally drunk, and sat at the dining table. Mom hustled a meal. She was in a middle of ironing a pile of sheets, and a hot old-fashioned heavy iron was within his hand’s reach. I am not sure what exactly was ‘wrong’ this time, but shortly I heard his “You did it again, bitch!”, and her scream. Then… Pans and dishes crashed on the floor, together with a heavy ‘thump’ that turned to be my mom falling to the ground. Evidently he grabbed the iron and smashed her head. I ran in from my bedroom, and instantly felt sick to my stomach from the site of mom’s blood oozing from her head and spreading on the floor. I ran out of the kitchen to call 911, and by the time I was back, my mother was dead, and my father was gone from the house.
I think that was the day when I became a lawyer. The following investigation and trial made me eerily familiar with the American justice system in action. Father’s lawyer was a sleazeball. These two fabricated a case of self-defense. According to them, it was my mother who attacked my father. Also, she allegedly had a history of being a neurotic, unbalanced, prone to jealousy and exaggeration woman who was never satisfied with the income my father provided. Without a shred of evidence, they alleged that mother had affairs. They even molded her depression to their advantage.
Imagine my astonishment when I learned what a probation is. I could not believe that courts could come up with such a naive thing. In my brain, it was a total nonsense that a person could kill another person and end up walking free; and on top of that, the state would pay his rehab expanses. My witness testimony did not help the case much because as a teenager I had a little bit of a ‘history’ myself. I wasn’t exactly the top of the class, and I was at that age when being against the ‘system’ was as natural as a glass of milk. Plus I did not see how exactly events unfolded the night my mom was killed.
Because my father had a ‘child to raise’, he got to walk away.
By the time the trial was over, I was 15. I lived for a year with my father, or I should say, in the same house. To his credit, the rehab helped his drinking problem, and the child protective services could not be more pleased.
As soon as I got my driver’s license, I took my father’s old Chevy and drove off. After driving through two or three states, I gave him a call from the gas station. I wished him a good life and strictly advised against looking for either me or the car, otherwise, with the help of my ‘friends’, police would find him with drugs, and that would be to hell with his probation. I only heard him breathing heavily, he did not say a word, so I hung up. That was the last time I had to do anything with the person called my ‘father’.
My new life began when I forged a number of signatures and transferred myself to the Nebraska high school. I also found a bunch of jobs to get me through. I walked dogs, I washed cars, I bought groceries for old ladies, and all that while trying to make my grades to get to the law school. I found a homeless guy, Sam, great old fella, who would impersonate my father whenever it was necessary for school meetings. I have to tell you, he did far better job then my real father ever did.
Strangely enough, I made it through the high school. Strangely enough I made it to a law school as well. Although it was a law school none of you probably even heard about, but I got in, and graduated. And even more surprising is that I passed the bar. Although it was a Wisconsin one with the passage rate over 90 percent (nothing to brag about at the high school reunion), but I did it.
There I was, a young law school graduate, with the license, thinking what to do. I have to admit, I was such an unimpressive student that all my job applications were nearly doomed to fail. During the school years, my energy mostly went on getting by and making ends meet, so when it was time to write my resume, a law school graduate with my combination of ‘work experiences’ would not get me too far.
My preppy peers might be well off and born with a golden spoon in their mouths, but there was something in me that made up for that disadvantage. I was tenacious and obsessed with the domestic violence cases. That was all I cared about.
One morning, I was reading the newspaper and stumbled across the headline: “MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF NICOLE HUNTINGTON IS RESOLVED – VICTIM OF HER HUSBAND, NICOLE WAS KEPT IN A BASEMENT FOR FIVE YEARS”. I remembered the story from five years ago. It made the headlines, because Nicole belonged to a rather well standing family. The rumor was that she escaped with her lover leaving her husband behind. Police was presented with a note written with Nicole’s hand. They also found receipts from purchased bus tickets, her clothes were evidently gone and such. Although the family was heartbroken and could not believe Nicole would ever do such a thing, her trace was lost in the police bureaucracy.
Nicole was saved by a pure chance. An old man at the counter noticed Nicole’s husband purchasing female hygiene items. Usually he shopped outside the town, but as years passed, he lost caution thinking that everyone probably forgot all about it. In a month or two, the cashier noticed the well-known man making the same purchases, and he found it highly suspicious for a small conservative North Carolina city (God bless old farts who live for a fresh gossip!). The official story was that the heartbroken husband lived alone, did not date, and stewed in his sorrow over a runaway wife. The old cashier guy thought that these facts did not add up. He literally lost his sleep over the suspicions and began spying on the house. One day he noticed on the dusty basement window barely visible letters: “HELP”.
The concerned citizen as the guy was, he took a photo of the window and ran to the police.
When the police opened the basement, it smelled foul. Nicole was chained to the metal pipe with a chain around her neck so that she could only sit or stand along the vertical pipe and could not make even one step away from it. Five years in the basement made her face look ashen.
How could the police overlook it? How could they not find her right under their noses? How could this ‘husband’ fool everyone for so long?
I asked myself these questions over and over again, but the answers escaped my imagination. I wondered the most what Nicole was feeling all this time. And what was worse, for my mother to die in one moment from a drunken rage at the hand of her husband, or for Nicole to endure such treatment for years.
[TO BE CONTINUED]