He entered the familiar lift, and the doors closed silently. Being alone in the cabin allowed him to stare at the button panel, hesitating, like he had before he had started his truck this morning, and then again when he had been standing in front of the building, the drizzle slowly but surely soaking him. His hand was trembling when he had eventually composed himself enough to press the button, illuminating a wretched light next to the number 28.
While the elevator moved, he attempted to prepare himself for the sight that would be awaiting him. A part of him tried to persuade himself that it was an usual day, a customary meeting with one of the firm’s name partners to discuss a new case. That he would step out of the elevator and approach the assistant at the reception desk as ballistics expert, not as husband of the female name partner. Not as widower of her.
The second the doors opened, office sounds surrounded him. Like they always had. Like there wasn’t an empty office at the end of the hallway, as if the names on the sign above the reception table, on the corridor wall, in the conference room, on the business cards that were handed out so easily, promising obtainability of two top Chicago lawyers, were still correct.
Kurt moved towards the receptionist, a young woman with long, black hair he was sure he hadn’t seen around yet. Their gaze met, and she looked at him questioningly, raising her eyebrows while doing so. For a moment it resembled Diane’s facial expression so much that he had to gulp heavily before he was able to articulate the cause for his visit.
“William Gardner, please.”
“Mr. Gardner is not available today”, she said, and when she continued, her voice shifted to a whisper. “He told me to clear his schedule early this morning, due to recent… events.”
Kurt nodded slightly, inhaling and exhaling slowly to prepare himself for his next words.
“I’m her husband”, he revealed, certain that she understood when the look of her umber eyes shifted from indifference to compassion and her features softened.
“Oh”, she breathed out, too taken aback to form a proper sentence. After some seconds she opened her mouth again but faltered for a moment, her dainty fingers fiddling with her hair.
“It’s okay”, he stepped in, forcing a weak smile to reassure the young woman who was visibly uncomfortable. “I know the way.”
The receptionist nodded, and with slow steps Kurt made his way through the corridor, passed the sign that told him he was at “Lockhart & Gardner”, and when he turned around the corner, he avoided to glance to the left. The attempt to pretend it was an ordinary day at the law firm was destroyed when he took in the figure of Will Gardner through the transparent walls. The name partner sat in his preferred chair, and files were scattered on the coffee table in front of him, but the lawyer had clasped his hands, chin resting on his fingers, and his brown eyes were seemingly fixated on something outside the window only he was able to see.
The car slowed down gradually while they passed several houses, approaching the first stop of their packed afternoon. Eventually Will parked his vehicle parallel to the sidewalk, studying their whereabouts curiously. He could spot the house Diane was headed to diagonally to the right in front of them, surrounded by a nature strip that had the potential to be turned into a beautiful garden. The driveway that led to the front door was paved with white gravel that was reflecting the sun, and somebody had planted small, late-blooming shrubs along of it.
“I’ve never been here before”, he admitted.
“Tells me you did not work on a lot of pro bono cases up to now”, Diane teases with a wink and unbuckles her seatbelt. She grabbed her bag and pulled out some folders, flipped through them quickly, her expression suddenly very serious.
“I’ll be back in a second”, she declared and shifted to get out of the car, when Will held her back, his fingers on her upper arm.
“You sure you’re okay?”, he wanted to know, frowning slightly while scanning her. A little bit surprised by his concern Diane wavered, biting her bottom lip while doing so. Will could see she was overthinking her emotions, her light eyes thinning.
“I am”, she answered then, looking at him openly. “I really am”, she repeated like she had to assure herself she had told him the truth. At first he doubted she was honest with him, but when one corner of her mouth moved up, giving him just an idea of a half-smile, he allowed himself to relax and trust her words, sure she had made up her mind.
“Alright then”, he said nodding, loosened his grip and drew back his hand.
“It won’t take long”, she promised again as she ultimately got out of the car. “Ten or fifteen minutes, at most!”
“Less talking, more actions!”, he urged her, but grinned. She huffed playfully, a broad smirk enlightening her face, and some seconds later the door clicked shut behind her.
Will’s gaze followed her for short moments as she made her way along the sidewalk, approaching the driveway, her blonde locks slightly tousled from the breeze, head held high as always, the files she wanted to deliver trapped between her forearm and chest, before he reached for his phone and began to scroll through emails.
A short time later he’d learn that she never made it to the door.
Kurt knocked at the door softly to not frighten the younger man. Will turned his head to look at his visitor, his mind still clouded with memories, and for some seconds the two men did nothing but stare at each other, until Will nodded once, whereupon Kurt moved to open the door and entered the office. The lawyer’s gaze wandered outside the window once again, only for a brief moment, before he got up from his armchair to greet the older man.
“Mr. Gardner”, Kurt said, shaking his hand.
“Will, please”, he corrected him, and a light smirk brightened Will’s features, the circumstances of their encounter forgotten for a moment. He then gesticulated to the unoccupied sofa, and Kurt settled there, one foot resting over the thigh of the other. Will crossed his office, grabbed two glasses and a bottle of bourbon and set them on the table in front of them. He sat back down, and without asking he filled the tumblers with two inches of the tawny liquor, then handed one over. They raised their glasses, and when they exchanged glances, both of them knew who they drank to.
“She would’ve liked this one”, Will broke the silence that had settled in the room, staring at the tiny waves he created between the transparent walls of his glass, swivelling it around in his hands.
“Yep”, Kurt replied, then downed the majority of the contents of his tumbler.
“I bought it to celebrate the change of our firm’s name”, the lawyer added while he pondered whether or not he should top up their glasses. He decided against it, considering the early hour and the tasks both of them still had to manage. However, the concept of just sitting in his office, cut off from the rest of the world, drinking the liquor whose original purpose was to serve at a cheerful occasion, drowning their sorrow in the burning liquid, relishing in memories of a time when their favourite person had still been alive, was tempting.
“You going to remove her name?”, Kurt wanted to know, his voice throaty and barely audible. He emptied his glass and placed it on the coffee table, dropping his leg to the floor and leaning in Will’s direction slightly. He watched the younger mans every move in order brace himself for whatever his answer would be. Will looked at him incredulously before his gaze shifted to the left, through the transparent doors into her deserted office, taking in the details he was so used to seeing, but the most important element was missing, like yesterday, the day before and like it would be every day that was yet to come.
“I… I don’t know”, he admitted in a whisper, his fingers running through his short dark hair, brown eyes fixated on the uninhabited chair in the adjourning room. He took a sip of the bourbon, focused on the warm feeling it caused in his throat for the short seconds it lasted, and turned his head to face the husband of his best friend. “I don’t know”, he repeated. “Not yet. Not now. I can’t think about it, and I don’t want to.” Will’s voice broke, and he inhaled deeply to calm himself. “I’m sorry”, he said and emptied his glass, then got up to put the empty tumblers and the bottle aside.
“We had a fight”, Kurt spoke up unexpectedly, his hands running along his stubbly chin. He didn’t know why he shared the fact with a man he barely knew, at least not in a personal manner, but a part of him hoped that talking about his concerns would bring him some relief. And Diane had always valued the opinion of her business partner, had appreciated his advice, and that was a good enough reason for Kurt to trust the younger man.
“I know.” Will turned around and sat back down, his features soft.
“It was stupid. I was so stupid. I could’ve made her happy, and it would’ve been so easy. But I didn’t. I failed her!”, he lamented, burying his face in his hands, unable to keep up his stoic façade.
“That’s not true!”, Will shook his head insistently, “You make her happy. I’d never seen her like that before, and I know her for a couple years now.” A pained little smile appeared on the lawyers face, and he didn’t realise that he talked about her like she was just out of office for some hours or days. The fact that she had passed only three days ago made the thought of her coming back incredibly enticing. Glancing at her vacant office when he was alone, pretending that she was just away for a business trip or called in sick was misleadingly easy.
Will looked at Kurt until the older man lifted his head and their gazes met. The misery in Kurt’s hazel eyes caused a queasy feeling in Will’s stomach, reminded him that she wasn’t able to return to her office. That the red chair that shifted into his sight so easily when he worked on his desk would stay empty. He gulped, swallowing a sob, and some seconds went by until he was sure he could continue.
“She loved you with her whole heart and more”, Will whispered eventually, his voice raspy from held back tears.
The car was way too fast. When it drove past his parked Mercedes, he could feel light vibrations that were caused by the too high speed. Before he could wonder about the road warrior, he heard shots. Not one or two but a hail of bullets, close enough to resonate in his ears. He dropped his phone in shock and ducked, and a moment later it was over.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit…”, he mumbled, his breath ragged while he opened the door of his car, his head still bent down. Why had he agreed to even set foot in a suburb like this? The incident shouldn’t have surprised him, not after what happened to Diane’s client, or rather his daughter.
Slowly he left the car, listening out carefully for possibly following dangers, but all he could notice was the deadly silence encasing the neighbourhood. Will straightened up, and his gaze drifted over his surroundings. Two windows of the fired-at house were broken, and some parts of the front were destroyed. Will sighed deeply, with every passing day it got more and more incomprehensible for him why certain people did what they did. Shaking his head he made his way around the front of his vehicle and moved towards the driveway that was lined with waist-high bushes. He glanced at his wristwatch and huffed audibly. They had to hurry up, or they would be inexcusably late, despite the circumstances.
But when he turned around the corner, all his concerns were forgotten. His eyes widened in shock, and he could feel his heartrate increasing before he was able to catch a clear thought.
“Diane!”, he cried out and hurried to the motionless body that was laying on the driveway, torn papers scattered around it. Will knelt down beside her, gasped when he saw that blood had coloured her former ivory blouse in a rusty red. Her blood. “Oh my god!”, he exclaimed, shifting her body so she lay on her back, her head in his lap. Somewhere in his head a voice was scolding him for moving her, reminding him that he was at a crime scene and not supposed to touch anything or anybody, but his worry for Diane drowned out every rational thought.
He scrutinised her closely, had just noted that her chest went up and down slightly when the front door opened and a man burst out. Will looked up, and if it hadn’t been such a grave situation, he would have laughed at the sight he had to be, a very well-dressed man sitting in the dirt on the driveway of an African American, with bloody hands, the head of an unconsciousness woman resting on his thighs.
“Mr. Dargis? I’m Will Gardner. Please call the ambulance. And the police. I… she…”, he stuttered, surprised how calm his first words had been, as if he had forgotten what had happened for a second. The owner of the house stumbled inside in a hurry, and Will turned his attention back to his partner. He pushed aside some strands of light blonde hair from her face, the back of his hand caressing her warm skin, when out of the blue her body shook and she opened her eyes.
“Diane! My god!”, he called out, interrupted by her coughing up blood, painting her lips in a new shade of red, tiny streams of vital fluid making their way down her neck, staining his trousers at their destination. Her respiration was short, whistling and too fast, but she studied Will with keen, light blue eyes. He nearly broke down, wanted to cry and scream his lungs out, but he braced up, tucking a stray lock behind her ear before he moved to take one of her hands into his own.
“Don’t you scare me like that ever again, you hear me?”, he blurted out, a hysterical laugh falling from his lips that was suffocated by a sob a moment later. He could sense her grip on his hand tightening in confirmation, and she attempted to form words, but the only thing that left her mouth was more blood.
“Shh”, Will shushed her, his thumb stroking the back of her hand. He could feel the cold metal of her wedding ring, the softness of her skin and the bones beneath it. She was still looking at him, and when she blinked slowly, more than a second passing before she managed to open her eyes again, fear washed through Will. He couldn’t continue living if his best friend didn’t. He was not ready for a world in which she only existed in his memory.
Nobody knew how much time had passed. At one point Mr. Dargis had reappeared on the doorsteps, the hand covering his mouth only able to hide his shocked expression partly. Diane was still losing blood, her blouse soaked, and somewhere in the back of his mind, Will wondered how much of it already covered both their clothes and the fine gravel on the ground, and how much was remaining in her body. All the while he never stopped drawing small, soothing circles on her hand absentmindedly while looking in the distance.
Suddenly Will could hear sirens wailing, and he noticed that the noise came closer. He smiled at Diane, tears blurring his vision for a second before he blinked them away.
“You are going to be alright”, he assured her, his hands moving to cup her face lovingly as he looked down on her, his tears that were falling down and wetting her pale skin belying his words.
She tried to form a lopsided smirk but failed miserably, the pain she was in carving wrinkles into her face, and for the fraction of a second she looked her age. Then her features softened, and her eyes fluttered closed.