There were few things Dr. Leslie Bridges hated more than a client who refused to tell the truth.
After leaving school, Leslie had made her name as a sort of “Psychologist to the Stars” and she’d profited greatly in the process. Wealthy men and women had the same problems as poor people, essentially. They were just able to pay much higher prices for her services and, of course, for her discretion.
If someone had given Leslie a dollar for every tabloid that offered to purchase private recordings and conversations, she would probably have moved up several tax brackets in the last three or four years alone. Secrets were a currency in the reality of the richest one percent; rumors were worth even more. Leslie hadn’t known that going into the business, but she certainly knew it now.
Still, no matter how much cash she was offered to break confidentiality, no matter what assurances were made to protect her anonymity, Leslie adhered to a strict code of professionalism. No amount of money anyone could offer would convince her to break that code. So long as her clients weren’t planning on committing a crime – even then, she really only cared about violent crimes, as the richest people in America often found themselves entangled in white collar crime of one flavor or another – her lips remained sealed.
They trusted her, which is why they kept calling. Should that trust ever dissolve, Leslie’s business would fall apart as quickly as it had sprung up.
So, it was impossibly frustrating to deal with a client who committed wholeheartedly to absolute fabrications, wasting precious minutes that both of them couldn’t really afford to spare.
Although…that wasn’t entirely true. Leslie was paid exorbitantly by the hour. If a client wanted to spend those hours weaving fairy tales, it wasn’t her problem. She would still reap the benefits of referrals, her fame would spread, and the office would continue to turn ridiculous profits annually. Already, she found herself thinking about bringing someone else into the practice, if only she could find someone in town that she could trust.
It wasn’t professional ethics that piqued her nerves, Leslie realized, while her client continued to spin lie after lie. In this specific instance, it was a personal connection. She cared about her clients, generally speaking. This particular client, however, represented a relationship that went beyond simple business. The link wasn’t anything that would raise eyebrows or bring an ethics board down on her head. It was deeper and, at the same time, simpler than that.
She’d known Sarah Ford since the woman’s childhood, after all.
“…so we’re handling some international business,” Sarah was saying. “It shouldn’t take us too long, but I didn’t want to miss an appointment.”
Leslie tuned back into the conversation. “That hasn’t stopped you in the past, Sarah,” she said. “I could check the official records, but I’m fairly certain that you’ve missed six of our last ten appointments.”
Sarah grimaced. “I think it’s seven, actually. Nothing went wrong with the trust fund, did it? I can wire you money for the absences, if you need me to.”
Leslie raised a hand, so that the webcam could see it. “The fund’s working perfectly, thanks. You’re ahead on your payments, same as always. That isn’t the problem.”
“What’s wrong, then?”
Leslie tapped her upper lip for a few seconds, carefully composing the next thought. Sarah probably wasn’t going to cut off contact, but it wouldn’t be proper for Leslie to even risk that. She’d tell her doctor what was really bothering her when she wanted to. A little prompting, however, couldn’t hurt.
The fact that ‘a little prodding’ would amount to a potentially offensive assault was just one of those things her professional intuition supported.
“How long have we been working together?” Leslie asked.
“Seven years, give or take. Why?”
“When we started our sessions, I made you a promise. Do you remember what it was?”
“Of course I do,” Sarah said. “You promised that, regardless of your relationship with my parents, our sessions were entirely private. That you’d never tell anyone what we talked about, even if my mom or dad put pressure on you.”
“Exactly. And I meant that. You do know that I meant that, don’t you?”
“I never doubted it.” The connection wasn’t perfect, but Leslie thought she saw Sarah’s expression darken and turn suspicious for an instant. “What are you getting at?”
“I only say that, so that I can say this.” Leslie took a deep breath, stalling and building up the moment, so that her next sentence would have the maximum effect. “Why are you fucking with me right now?”
“I talk to your parents outside of the office on a regular basis,” Leslie continued, “so I can say with absolute certainty that you aren’t overseas dealing with the family business right now. As far as they know, you’re still running your investment business out of Los Angeles. Your father, specifically, tried his level best to convince me that it would be in your best interest to come home.”
“Did you agree with him?”
Leslie shook her head. “Without knowing more about the dynamic there, I’m not really willing to advise you in one way or another. And don’t change the subject.”
“I…wasn’t changing the subject…”
Sarah had always been a bad liar. She’d gotten considerably better in the past ten months, but Leslie was a trained psychologist, with years and years of experience piercing through masks. “Yes, you were. Look, if you want to use a metaphor to talk about what’s really bothering you, that’s fine. I can adapt. But you aren’t even doing that. There’s something on your mind and, whatever it is, it’s got you so shaken that you can’t even allude to it.”
Sarah pressed her lips together and stayed silent.
The ‘bad cop’ routine had rocked Sarah out of the rhythm of her falsehoods. Leslie switched to ‘good cop,’ so that she could coax the truth out with a softer touch. “I want to help you, Sarah. You know that I do. But I can’t do that if you aren’t going to tell me the truth. Or at least some version of the truth.”
Leslie couldn’t exactly announce that she wasn’t concerned with the legalities of Sarah’s activities. That would almost certainly violate ethical guidelines. She could only hope that Sarah would read between the lines and understand.
Sarah looked sheepish on her end of the video call for several seconds. Leslie had just enough time to wonder if she’d pushed too hard when her client cleared her throat and began to speak. “I wasn’t lying about, uh…being away on business. I may have exaggerated when I said that I was working on behalf of the family.”
Progress, even if it was slow progress, was better than nothing. “What are you doing, then?”
“You remember when I settled down in Los Angeles, a few years ago?”
Leslie nodded. She’d worked with the Ford family, in one fashion or another, for almost two decades. Sarah hadn’t taken advantage of her services until she’d come home from overseas.
“Well,” Sarah continued, “I guess you could say that I started my own little side business while I was away. Before I started…you know, talking to you.”
“Okay. What sort of business is it?”
“A non-profit,” Sarah said, a little too quickly. “Except for operating expenses, virtually every dime is used to help people in need.”
Leslie jotted down some notes in her blue notebook. When her clients had particularly stringent privacy requirements, she made sure to keep even the notes from her appointments in a single, specific location. The blue notebook, during the few hours each day where it wasn’t in her hand or in her direct line of vision, lived in a safety deposit box, rented under a false name. Leslie knew that she was paranoid about the notebook falling into the wrong hands, but she was comfortable with that paranoia. People would spend small fortunes to acquire the information her clients revealed. Spending a little bit of her money to ensure that those secrets were kept safe only seemed reasonable.
“I’m not surprised that you went into charity work,” Leslie said. “You’ve been very interested in that sort of thing since college, haven’t you?”
“That was the first time I really learned how bad it can be for other people,” Sarah replied. “Before that, I just sort of figured that…you know, other people would handle it.”
“And you felt they weren’t doing that?”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed. “They were hardly even trying,” she said. “You know how much money from your average charity actually goes to the stated cause? Almost none. They pocket donations, bill themselves as non-profit organizations, and then pay their CEOs millions. Meanwhile, the peole who really need help barely get the minimum required.”
Leslie had not, in fact, known that. All her life, she’d conscientiously donated to several charities. Now, she figured, those charities would need some deeper analysis.
“Your non-profit is different?”
“I give the money to the people who need it,” Sarah said. “No red tape, no bureaucracy. It’s not like I’m going to need the extra salary.”
Leslie nodded. “And that’s what you left Los Angeles for? Your non-profit,I mean?”
Sarah lapsed into silence again. Leslie settled down in her chair, content to wait until her client was willing to elaborate. It only took a few seconds. “Yes and no. There were…issues with the business that needed my attention. So I decided that I could afford to take a little vacation. You know, knock out those problems and stretch my legs a little bit.”
“Do you often find that you need to stretch your legs?”
Sarah hesitated, then nodded. “How much of a first world problem is that? Even if my family wasn’t rich, I’ve acquired a considerable personal fortune. I can afford to just leave my job to fly around the world whenever I want. But here I am, complaining about feeling cramped in my apartment.”
“That isn’t ridiculous,” Leslie said. “Not everyone is cut out for a sedentary life. Your father spends his vacations tackling mountains; your mother lobbied for a position on every social board that would accept her.”
“And my sister,” Sarah added sourly, “is busily establishing herself as the best pediatric surgeon in the country. So it’s good to know that I’m too restless to deal with simply enjoying life in the lap of luxury.”
Another line of notes went into Leslie’s notebook.
“Are you comparing yourself to your sister?” Leslie asked. “Because we’ve spoken about that before.”
Sarah reached off-camera for an instant before pulling a soda back into frame. She popped the top as she sighed; the two sounds mingled with each other over the connection. “I know. I know. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling…I don’t know. Does ungrateful sound like the right word for that?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” Leslie tapped a pen against the desk for a handful of seconds. “If anything, I’d say that you’re just feeling unfulfilled. Wealth for its own sake might not matter to you. It’s possible that you need some sort of…perhaps ‘noble purpose’ is the closest phrase? I imagine that’s why you started your non-profit, right?”
“…yeah, let’s go with that.”
Leslie recognized a half-truth when she heard it.
“You said yes and no, when I asked if that’s why you went overseas,” Leslie said. “What was the other reason? The one that I suspect you don’t want to talk about?”
Sarah bit down her bottom lip. “I, uh…well…” She took a deep breath, visibly steeling herself, and rushed through the next sentence without allowing herself time to rethink it. “I’m having to work with Devlin again.”
Leslie barely kept herself from whistling in surprise. She waited until her expression was firmly under her control before she spoke. “That would be the same Devlin that I’m thinking of?”
“Yes, the same.” With the information finally out, Sarah’s expression softened. She wasn’t being entirely honest, but she had at least moved into territory where she didn’t feel it necessary to control every single thought or expression. “He was the person who brought the…problems…to my attention, in the first place.”
“And that requires you to work with them, after being alerted?”
“The difficulties I mentioned? They’re the sort of thing he specializes in. I’m really not sure I could have handled things without him.”
Sarah sighed. “He and I started the non-profit together, in the first place,” she admitted.
That made no sense at all.
When they’d first started their sessions, Devlin had been the only thing on Sarah’s mind. It took weeks before Sarah had been able to mention anything other than her ex-husband and Leslie, trained psychologist that she was, didn’t believe for an instant that Sarah had ever gotten over the man. From what she’d been able to gather, the relationship between Sarah and Devlin had kept itself afloat on pure passion, long after their fundamental incompatibilities should have driven them apart.
As far as Leslie knew, Devlin had come from a poor family; Sarah was a Ford, with all of the financial benefits that name implied. A purely sexual dalliance would have been one thing, but for her to marry him had been ludicrous. They had nothing in common.
Or did they? It was possible that Sarah was keeping salient details to herself. She clearly thought that something about her overseas business was worth sabotaging sessions over. Maybe that unknown thing was the link between Devlin and her client?
She didn’t know. She couldn’t know, unless Sarah opened up.
Leslie jotted down a short phrase – not even a complete sentence, just an unformed question – in the notebook.
“When you say that he specializes in this area,” Leslie began, “what exactly do you mean?”
Sarah’s eyes flickered away momentarily. “He has a…history in art acquisition.”
“For auctions and things like that?”
“Things like that, yeah.”
Leslie didn’t miss the subtle evasion. She logged that in her memory, not the notebook.
“So you’ve been working with your ex-husband again. How has that been going?”
Sarah sighed. “Exhilarating? Confusing?”
“It isn’t surprising that you’re experiencing conflicting emotions,” Leslie said. “Devlin was a big part of your life for a long time. Finding yourself in close proximity to him again would almost certainly stir up feelings that you haven’t had a chance to deal with yet.”
“Tell me about it,” Sarah said, snorting derisively. She took a sip from her soda and speared a small piece of cooked meat with a fork.
Leslie hadn’t noticed the food before. Sarah must have been ignoring it during the earlier part of the session and, with the field of vision so limited, it had escaped her attention. Leslie obviously couldn’t know how the food tasted, but it looked delicious. The small sound of pleasure that passed Sarah’s lips seemed to confirm that hypothesis.
When had Sarah learned how to cook?
Leslie added that question to her growing list and asked another. “How long do you think you’ll have to work with Devlin?”
“It’s difficult to know for sure,” Sarah said. “There are a lot of…complicated transactions that need to be handled.”
“I’m sure that your mother could put you in touch with someone equally versed in art, if you -”
“No!” Sarah’s reply was sharp and sudden. Leslie kept her expression placid until her client sighed and elaborated. “No, I can’t do that. I don’t want my mother to know about this side business of mine. Or anyone in my family, really.”
“And why do you think that is?”
“I just want to have something that’s mine,” Sarah said. “As soon as mom and dad get involved…as soon as my sister gets involved…then it’s just another subsidiary of Ford Enterprises. That’s not what I want. That’s the opposite of what I want.”
“Does your business have to include him? Could you make it easier on yourself by, I don’t know, offering to buy him out? Or selling you interest in the business to him, so that you can start one of your own?”
At first, Sarah didn’t respond. “He’s an important part of what’s going on,” she said, slowly. “And I don’t think I’d want to do this with anyone except him.”
Leslie almost smiled in understanding. The knowledge that Sarah would retreat into herself, refusing to acknowledge her own feelings through sheer force of will, was all that kept her face unreadable.
Whatever had brought Devlin and Sarah together in the first place hadn’t been enough to keep them together. By the time she’d come to Leslie, Sarah had been a recent divorcee. No amount of coaxing or psychiatric artistry had been able to reveal many details about the split, except for one: he had broken her trust in a manner so profound that she couldn’t imagine herself staying with him for another day.
In Leslie’s experience, that level of hatred usually came with a commensurate level of passion. It wouldn’t take much motivation to turn that anger into something more…difficult to comprehend. It was no wonder, then, that Sarah was having difficulties.
“Ah. Well, then. Has this prolonged exposure made anything more clear for you? We’ve talked before about your problems with accepting help.”
“I’ve got more help than I know what to do with,” Sarah grumbled. “We ended up having to take on a…well, I guess you’d call them a sort of driver.” She paused. “And a bodyguard.”
“A bodyguard?” The exclamation was out of Leslie’s mouth before she could stop it.
“Well…yeah,” Sarah said. “I’m still a Ford, even if I don’t want that name attached to what I’m doing; having protection is just common sense.”
“Correct me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t you resist your father’s efforts to assign you a detail in the past?”
“I did, but this is…different. It’s not even like having a bodyguard, so much as a close friend who carries a gun. It really isn’t that big of a deal.”
True, but heading into countries where personal protection was a necessity, instead of a luxury, was not common sense in the slightest. “You’re still out of the country, right? Can I ask where you are now?”
Sarah pursed her lips. “You can,” she said, “but I’d rather not say. Is that important?”
“No, I guess it isn’t. Can I guess where you’ve been, though? Or are you not comfortable giving me that information?”
“Oh, um. Nowhere that’s going to require a military intervention. London, Paris, Macau.” Sarah’s computer made a sound. She checked a message which Leslie couldn’t see and sighed audibly. “And Freetown, apparently.”
West Africa? What could Sarah possibly be doing in West Africa that related to a mysterious charity that no one had heard of yet?
Leslie almost asked the question. She couldn’t think of anything in West Africa that might warrant the attention of someone with Sarah’s status other than conflict diamonds and the arms trade. Surely, she wouldn’t be dabbling in waters so dark and deep. Even the thought of Sarah Ford elbow deep in some of the worst humanity had to offer was laughable.
She didn’t get to ask, though. Through the connection, Leslie heard a door open. Sarah eyes snapped onto something off-screen. “Don’t you knock?”
“I did knock,” a male voice replied, “but you didn’t hear me. You got the email too?”
“I did. But I can’t really talk about this right now, Devlin. I’m on a call.”
“Oh! Oh, I didn’t know. Uh…sorry for interrupting, seriously. Whenever you’re done, though, Mila and Michel are working up a list of what we’ll need for -”
“Yes,” Sarah said, stressing the word to its breaking point, “we can talk about that later.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” Devlin said. He must have retreated because, after another second or two, Leslie heard the door close again.
Sarah took a moment to compose herself before she turned her attention back to Leslie. “Sorry about that.”
“Problems with your charity?” Leslie asked.
“Just an opportunity to do good work,” Sarah replied.
Surprisingly, Leslie’s bullshit detector didn’t go off at that.
A fluffy white cat leaped up onto the desk with Sarah. She idly scratched behind its ears while she spoke. “I’ve got to go, Doctor Bridges. Duty calls and all that. But I hope I can make it to our next session. This has been…helpful. I think.”
She had a cat, too? Of all the things she’d heard and seen in the last hour, the presence of a pet still shocked Leslie. Sarah hated animals and, by and large, that feeling was reciprocated by the animal kingdom.
“It’s always a pleasure,” Leslie said out loud, relying on muscle memory and long habit. “And, remember, if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to reach out.”
Sarah nodded, gently pushed the cat out of the way, and closed the connection.
Leslie sat in her office, still and silent, for five minutes. She’d left the session with far more questions than she’d come into with and she really couldn’t see how she’d helped Sarah with anything. Her professional career had brought her into contact with many different people and honed her ability to identify when things simply weren’t adding up.
Piecing together Sarah’s story was like trying to do arithmetic with musical notes. Leslie wasn’t missing details or clues; she was missing context. She was certain that things would make perfect sense, if seen through a particular lens. The problem was that she had no idea what sort of lens that was.
Her phone went off, reminding her that another client was due in five minutes. Leslie used two of those minutes pondering Sarah and her peculiar session. Then, with the last three minutes, she systematically tore every piece of paper she’d written on and fed them into her shredder.
Better safe, Leslie thought, than sorry.