Holly Beecher had been photographing the other members of what Cassidy Mackey liked to call the Contact Visits Crew for a couple of weeks before it was finally Cass's turn. Holly posed her in front of the studio's bare brick back wall, kitty-corner to the window, though angled so that no one outside (hopefully) would catch a clear glimpse of the whole package.
Quite the image, one way or another: Short, stacked Cass, rocked back on her heels in a casual dojo stance, the flare of gym-born muscle all up and down her arms--biceps and shoulders too solid to dent even with a hard grab--defiantly contrasting with the delicate way her spread palms cupped the nipples of two incongruously large, soft breasts. She hadn't challenged the idea of taking her shirt off for the last few shots, but had compensated by leaving her hat on--a soft grey watch-cap pulled down to hide both jaw-length brown braids, so low it almost left her eyebrowless.
"Where you gonna sell these bad boys, anyway?"
"SYSTEM magazine. And it's place, not sell--"
"--so it's art, not porn: Show some skin to get across my well-hidden vulnerable side, right?"
"You got it."
Holly could see light glinting off the contact scars on Cass's knuckles, and immediately found herself remembering that equally alien pad of callus at the base of her chopping hand's palm--a thin, scratchy seam, just rough enough to catch deliciously on the four-fingered in-stroke.
"Shit, it's cold in here--weather in this state really fucking sucks, you know that? You almost done, H?"
"H", sometimes pronounced like "ache". Cass had picked Holly's nickname of choice up far quicker than most, drawling it in that weird (white) semi-gangsta Los Angeles way of hers; from the sharp grin that always accompanied it, Holly suspected her careful attention to detail was probably more about amusement value than real respect for Holly's preferences, but whatever.
In the end, after all, the only motives worth worrying about here--one way or another --were strictly Holly's own.
So: "Almost." A step back, more fiddling with the apeture ring. "You work out a lot, right?"
"How much can you bench?"
"Uh...'bout a hundred twenty, maybe a hundred twenty-five." At Holly's stare: "It doesn't mean anything."
"Just sixty pounds an arm."
Cass shrugged. "Keeps me limber."
Holly sighted on her cleavage, where a red-tinged knot of expressionistically-figured black numbers nested like a skeleton rose. "You never did tell me what that was."
"What of, though."
Seen straight on, in that trademark glare of hers, Cassidy's blue-grey-greenish eyes turned blue through and through, the same opaque shade as her uniform would have been, anywhere but L.A. She took a minute before answering.
Finally: "It's my Dad's badge number."
"I'm not a cop, but that strikes me a mite high."
"Multiplied it by his sentence," Cass said. And shut up for the rest of the session.
The Contact Visits Crew photos would be one more set in an ongoing series, the same one Holly'd been pursuing--off and on--since she was old enough to hold her first camera. The Nikon in question had been a present from Gram and Gramps, top-of-the-line digital, with lots of memory and plenty of room for mistakes. And now and then, in her sourer moments, Holly sometimes thought her first real mistake might have been using its existence as leverage to force Toby-Dad to at least see her long enough to pose for a portrait. Like so--
Something to remember you by, okay? Since you won't let me get close enough to TOUCH, or anything.
She could still see the look on his face when she'd played that particular card: Shock-flattened all over, single gash of a frown bisecting barely-there brows over a stunned-blind stare. That oh-so-familiar lip-curl baring a rim of kitten-teeth--half prissy, half feral. Like looking in some freakish funhouse mirror.
Scratch him, even just a little, and you find me. Scratch me, on the other hand, and you find...
Not sure. Still looking.
That one quick snap had soon multiplied, of course--two DVDs full, enough for her first portfolio, her first art school application; hell, some of them had even ended up in her first real exhibition. Amongst others.
But then and there, Holly always thought, was where the fascination which continued to rule her "art" probably stemmed from: That constant basic urge to match face to face, form to form, even when separated by crime and contact gates. To trace where Ryan O'Reily ended and Cyril O'Reily began; to catch glimpses of "you really want me to call you Uncle?" Chris Keller in that handful of kids the wives he'd forgotten to mention carted down for his resentencing hearing. (Toby-Dad's appeals crossed with Alvah Case's election had gotten him transferred from Death Row to Solitary eventually, not that that'd counted for much once the cancer set in.) To even, on selected occasions, watch those intermittent flashes of Vern Schillinger's mock-mild menace come and go in his granddaughter Jewel's heartbreakingly open Minnesota stare.
Or Cass and her famous/infamous Dad, knee to knee in their usual corner of the contact visits suite, while C.O.s Pole and Murphy paid extra-careful attention from the sidelines. Reputation aside, Vic Mackey had never been anything but pleasant to Holly, but watching he and Cass interact could definitely be more than a little scary--especially so whenever they leant their foreheads together in that conspiratorial way, speaking in low, even tones about who was due to get what when, how, and why: No names, no specifics. Nothing that could go on the record.
Just a brutal personal shorthand codified over ten years' worth of cold rage, born of a mutual understanding that justice--blind bitch that she was--had really dropped the fuckin' ball this time.
That was where you saw "blood start to tell", as Holly's Gram and Gramps liked to say, because Cass--otherwise far too feminine to look like her Dad, per se--had sure as fuck long since internalized Vic's trick of toting up grudges the way other people balanced their checkbooks. Inside or out, the Mackeys seldom forgave and never, never forgot; it was a shared trait which kept Holly consistently glad Toby-Dad had been able to do whatever it was he'd done (Beecher still rarely told her details about his prison experiences, not unless she pressed) for that particular clan of two, before he'd finally left Oz behind forever.
Genetics in action. What we learn by osmosis vs. what we learn by example. How some people learn to blame themselves for nothing, while others, others--learn--
--to blame themselves for everything.
Even the stuff they have nothing at all, in the final analysis, to do with.
After the shoot, Holly and Cassidy ended up at a place down the block from Holly's studio, a greasy spoon of indeterminate age called Sam's. Far as Holly could tell, the name was a hand-me-down from earlier owners; nobody who worked there now answered to anything vaguely like it, certainly, unless you counted that guy Sunil who sometimes cleared tables.
Holly watched Cass tear her way through a mushroom burger (no fries, very rare), eyes hidden once more behind a pair of sleek, socket-fitted sunglasses: Perfect for L.A., one assumed, though Holly barely knew how she managed to find her way around while wearing them out here. She'd pushed her cap up again, freeing the braids, which whipped back and forth with every ferocious bite.
"You and C.O. Pole still an--item?" Holly ventured, sipping her watered-down Coke.
And: Such a nasty cherub smirk, teeth stained blood-pink. "Well, yeah, sure. On and off."
"Accurate, too." More chewing, then: "Look, what can I say--some basic level, I guess he sorta reminds me of this Strike Team guy, Lemonhead? 'Uncle' Lem, heh. Dumb as a dog, but that boy's shit was tight, yo. Like, super-fine."
To which Holly nodded, thinking: Tight shit, I can get behind that. First thing I look for in a guy, aside from money, taste, and a nice...personality...
But that way lay confusion, if not madness. Especially when sitting across from Cassidy, knowing she could practically still lick her lips and taste the other girl's lipstick. That tearful hug they'd shared in the parking lot outside Oswald Maximum Security the day Cass hot-footed it all the way to Oz just in time to hear her Dad was in the Hole, the one leading straight (ha, ha) to a trip back to Holly's for a bag of weed and some ill-timed female bonding, a sofa-bed shared in the gathering dark--
Then waking hung-over and regretful in the dull morning light, without even a note to tell her why she was alone again--just Cass's beeper on the kitchen table, handle towards Holly's hand, like Macbeth's phantom dagger. Is this another fucked-up chick with Daddy issues I see before me?
"Fine is good," Holly said, aloud. Cass nodded, elaborating--
"It's fun, 's all. Recreation."
"And it's not like you have a hidden agenda, or anything."
Another bite, the same grin. "Who, me?"
Followed by dead air, chewing, tinny classic Eminem leaking from Sunil's headphones as he dragged a rag across the next table over. While Holly just kept looking at Cass, thinking about how--for a potential career manipulator, trained (albeit long-distance) by one of the LAPD's former finest--Cass remained so remarkably simple to manipulate, so innately easy to read and understand. How, on some level, she still carried around the gooey centre of her former self, a pudgy suburban princess with every Malibu Stacey accessory known to humankind...that brash, bullying kid who everybody in the neighborhood worshipped and hated in equal measure, not the least because her world-view hinged around the knowledge that if she had a problem all she ever had to do was complain to Daddy, and he'd make it go away.
At his best, all Holly's Toby-Dad had ever been able to make disappear had been himself. Which would certainly have been bad enough under any circumstances, even if it hadn't led to Holly's Mommy later getting much the same idea...
But there it was: Daddy off getting who-knew-what done to him in jail, Mommy "asleep" in that fume-filled car in the garage. And nothing had ever seemed truly permanent to Holly after that--not Gram and Gramps' literate, social, "understanding" townhouse life, not the three-week nightmare of her own childhood abduction, not even those few dim, remaining memories of her brother Gary's stupidly trusting smile.
Like Cassidy Mackey, shared trauma of parental incarceration aside, Holly Beecher had grown up both rich enough to do what she wanted and loved enough to do what she needed without ever hesitating over the consequences...yet she couldn't remember ever taking any of it for granted, not when she'd been taught so early on that what one person thought of as "reality" could be revealed--all too easy, all too often--as nothing more than a matter of perspective.
Not since the day her grandparents had taken her gently by both hands, led her into their parlor, and shown her Gary's coffin.
Houses full of secrets breed lies, so Holly had gotten expert at eavesdropping fairly early on. Which is how she'd come to not let on she was around during the following exchange: Toby-Dad vs. poor, court-appointed Dr. Skoda, with his slant-eyebrowed stare and his deceptively lazy Yellow M & M drawl; Holly had never understood just why Beecher's already-high quotient of snark seemed to skyrocket whenever he had to weather the good doc's proximity, 'till the very moment she'd realized that under the "right" circumstances--lack of sleep, stress-related tics, the sort of bad day at the office which probably fairly cried out for a phantom martini--he looked almost exactly like Vern Schillinger in a toupee.
Not that Beecher ever seemed to consider said resemblance valid grounds for complaint, naturally. Because that would have taken some sort of...responsibility, on his part: Far too hard, or too easy--
Toby-Dad, stalking up and down the oriental like a caged house-cat, snarling: "Look, you DON'T dangle normal human life in front of me and then take it away, like--whooo! Just jokin', baby. The person I was would've taken that. I won't."
"Mmm-hmm." Scritch of pen over paper. Then: "Care to clarify?"
That bitter Beecher laugh, the one Holly'd already felt scraping up from inside her, a time or two. "Sure, doc--I'm a lawyer. So try these stats on for size: I went to jail, I did five years, I was raped twenty times a week, I stabbed a man, I got the shit kicked out of me, I did a month and a half in the Hole, I took drugs, I had a nervous fucking breakdown. You want to revoke my parole over a fucking check-up, you go on ahead and do it. But if you do--no, I won't say it aloud, because if I did, you'd call it a threat." A pause. "I'm just not going back. Ever. And that's all."
Holly hugged the wall, watched Skoda not react. He was good at it, obviously; well worth studying. Just like a real, live...
"How's the advocacy work going?"
A sigh. "Okay, for an exercise in uselessness. McManus's still got me working on an appeal for Miguel Alvarez, trying to knock off some of that extra time he got for escaping--not gonna happen, but I might be able to get him out of solitary, at least. And it does keep Timmy-boy off my back."
"Ever discuss any of that with the kids?"
"They don't talk to me, Doctor. Not about anything...real. That'd be like I was part of their lives, or something."
Another pause. More scritching. Holly pored over the last statement in her head, considering it from all angles, checking for holes. Beecher's tone had been surface-wistful yet oddly perfunctory, a shrug in every syllable; to her, it sounded as though much as he might want to find--and fill--the him-shaped gap in she and Harry's world, he'd already reconciled with the permanent loss of his once-innate ability to recognize what it looked like.
"Dream much, Toby?"
Not a question: "About Oz."
"Oz?" Beecher'd repeated. "Not quite. In the dreams, I wake up, and I go downstairs, and my mother makes me breakfast, and my father hugs me goodbye. And I go to work, and I do my job--my old job. I work all day. I don't steal anything. And then I come home, and I eat dinner with my parents, and I watch some TV. And then I go back to sleep."
"Just like none of...what happened...ever happened."
A nod. "Just like that." Followed by another pause, slightly longer--
(and oh, Holly'd often thought, if I only had his gift for timing, I'd never have to worry over class presentations again. That diva, my long-lost ex-con D-A-D...)
"--but then I really wake up. And I'm screaming."
Talking with Cass was always a performance, never a real conversation. Somewhat like eavesdropping on a careless MPD sufferer, one could only assume--except for the constant hail of spitfire L.A. cop jargon it all came along with, thrown haphazardly in on top.
"So they had me on mayoral security detail, right? Full dress uniform gauntlet--the whole straight-out-the-'cademy rookie Training Day nine yards, big D Denzel-style. And he comes walking right up to me, squinting down. Goes: 'Officer Mackey. I've heard...things about you.'" A pause. "Pockmarked bitch."
Holly nodded, murmured: "That's diplomatic."
"Hey, I didn't say it out loud. Just stood there, thinkin' oh yeah, Dave: Me too, ese." Down to the last of the fries now, gone in two neat snaps; Cass cleared her throat, then laid the punchline. "Fucker ever gets that near me again, for whatever reason, I'm gonna plant my stick right in his ass."
"With your Dad's tacit approval, of course..."
"Ooh, big words. Look, actual fact, I don't know what Vic wants, half the time. I mean--him and Dutch Wagenbach, the Feeb? They got this fucked-up Hannibal Lecter scenario goin' on, so every time Dutchman gets kicked some dirty cop case from I.A., first thing he does is come in and 'consult'. Like any of that's gonna mean shit come parole-board time, what with Mayor A. leading the pack. 'Ladies and gentlemen, Victor Mackey abused the public trust...'"
"Well, didn't he?"
"The public's trust is for crap, H. I don't trust them, and why should I? You ever worked with real fuckin' people in any real fuckin' context, you'd understand that."
"It's probably mutual."
"Hope so." A mid-sentence switch, weirdly plaintive: "But look, man--just look at the stuff he did, then look at the stuff he stopped. Add it up."
"Shouldn't work that way. And would you even want to think that was true, if he wasn't your Dad?"
Which just brought both blue eyes down again, pinning Holly flat over the rim of those Matrix shades--round and flat and empty under lowered brows, like a shark's, like a doll's. And Holly could already hear the voice of Dr Skoda rumbling up from somewhere deep inside, his breath tickling her mind's ear: Clinical words, exactly sufficient to the symptoms, though cut with a sorrowful sort of diagnostic understanding. Hero-worship; self-definition. Self-delusion. Established pattern of behavior.
(Oh, HO yeah.)
Because that last was the one cut the deepest, wasn't it? Not to mention both ways. Cass playing her patented Vic Mackey.2 game, still proudest of the fact that even though her mother'd been the one who left--took the autistic brother, the new baby girl and Cass and fled, 'round about the same time Aceveda and company had finally decided Vic was more of a liability than an asset to the Farmington squad--she'd been the only one who came back once the shit hit the fan, ready to listen, learn and emulate, to carve herself into a living rebuke to the system that'd failed them both.
Or Holly, always most "content" to observe from the sidelines of life rather than risk direct involvement, while simultaneously filing away the details for future artistic reference. Watching Toby-Dad, so scrupulous in his own not-drinking, yet quick enough to cast a cold eye over her surviving sibling Harry's mounting experimentation--much like the way he kept track of Harry's dealings down at the family firm, but never volunteered any but the most sidelong possible shadow of advice on how he conducted them: Contract law, huh? Investment counselling? Probate challenges? Well, I guess you know what you're doing, son; you did go to Harvard, after all. Just...
...don't get caught.
Watching the fissures form and spread, like cracks in glaze under ever-increasing heat. Gauging the point at which Harry might or might not break from some icy mental distance, as though it was nothing more than a hobby. A bet he'd made solely with himself, so he'd never have to worry about paying off anybody he didn't want to be in debt to, no matter which way the chips eventually fell.
While Holly stood even further back, at even more of a remove. Taking pictures.
And: "Fuck you, bitch," Cass replied, flatline level--the classic comeback, so rote it didn't even sting. "Least I got something to live up to."
Well, hmmm; no getting 'round that one, not really. Not even when your next thought, as Holly's was, went a little something like--
Yup. And at least I know MY Dad deserved to be in Oz, when he was.
--because, shit...that just wasn't much of an insight, now, was it? Seeing how Toby-Dad'd probably be the first to tell you it himself, you only asked.
'Something to live up to.'
That phrase, still ringing in her ears even as Cass pushed her sunglasses back up and turned her re-hidden eyes safely elsewhere, the muscular curve of her neck on full, arrogant display: Jump 'cross and take a bite out, baby, you really think you'd have a hope in hell of getting away with it. 'Cause I could DO with a little more exercise today.
One blue vein pulsing, only visible indicator of a triphammer heart on constant overdrive. And for a second, Holly felt herself almost overcome--sucked down, undertow-deep, by a karmic wave set in motion long before either of them were even old enough to see themselves as people. Sins of the father(s), that tired trope, yet no less powerful for all its predictability.
Because: Here I am, "living up". Knowing the people I love most will always be the ones who're worst for me. Knowing the only way I'll survive is to take responsibility, like Toby-Dad never will--for who I am, as well as for who I'm not.
My Dad loved Chris Keller right to the bitter dregs, even though he knew it was bullshit. He knew it'd end in tears and he went there anyway, all the way. So is that strength, or weakness? Is it weak to want to love that much? To be LOVED, that much?
...by Vic and Cassidy Mackey's standards, probably. With no amount of drunken fumbling, no matter how heart-felt, ever being enough to change that assessment.
"I'll send you the prints, when they're ready," Holly said, at last, pushing her chair back. Checked the bill, calculated interest, and threw two more bucks in on top: A lady's tip, just large enough for true largesse. Enough to make Gram and Gramps proud, for sure.
Holly took one more brief glance back at Cass, still studying Mars like it was some skell she'd been assigned to surveil. And walked the hell out.
No pathetic fallacy followed her back to her car, thank Christ, where she sat dry-eyed for a good ten minutes before turning on the ignition. Thinking, without even wanting to, about that time right after Beecher's parole went through--the orgy of hugs, then Harry hanging back and clutching Uncle Angus' hand 'till this weird new man in the shabby old suit finally stopped trying to meet his eyes and just let him creep ever closer, slowly, like some cat checking out an empty box with a familiar/unfamiliar smell.
An hour later he was in Beecher's lap, hugging him so hard they'd had to pry his arms open to put him to bed. Deep asleep, but still clutching.
And now came another Skoda conversation, intruding: Toby-Dad, bemused yet once more by the outside world's rules, listing off the many ways in which OZ had that shifting moral morass beat cold--where to go, what to do, how to stand, sit, walk, answer back. Who to pay, and how. Whose ass to kiss, lit or fig. What was worth killing, or being killed, over...
"Sounds to me like you wish you were back there."
She'd stopped him in the hall, later on. Begged him outright to swear he wasn't going to do anything--stupid. And got nothing in return for her passion but the barest, most tired crinkle of brows, the slightest narrowing of those faded eyes. "Holly, c'mon. Do I want to stay out? Do I want to stay out? Of course I want to stay OUT, Holly. You know I do. I want to stay out--"
--just as long as I possibly can.
The unsaid coda, to almost everything. Pure ambivalence lurking inside every action and reaction just like the cancer that ate Chris Keller's heart, love-first. What remains behind, inevitably, even when all the rest is burned away.
At which Holly had closed her eyes, the very same way she was closing them now. Seeing the contact visits room at Oz coalesce behind her eyelids in a blood-vessel map: The place where all matter in her particular universe tended to collect, one way or another. Second home for her first, her truest self. The room in which a person can see all things broken down to their most basic elements, their component clockwork parts.
That's where you'll be, she thought; on one side of the glass to see Harry, or on the other, with him. And that's where I'll be, too--in there with you and him, or with Cass, 'till she gets herself put somewhere else: Mennenvale, maybe. Some California WCI. Gonna spend the best years of my life in a row of plastic boxes, pressing my hand against a divider. And that's because all you ever thought to teach me about true love...is...
(...it always makes time to visit.)
Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus--Christ.
Eyes shut, ignition on. Holly felt the car purr against her, warming her thighs. And knew that she didn't know what they had, she and her father, her brother, her friend. Her haphazard lover. What they had, or would have, now: In common, out of it. Or what-the-fuck-ever.
But--they had something, at least, though. Right? All of them.