Many people feel that Claire Kincaid was not an interesting character until after she was paired with Jack McCoy. Author Major Houlihan considers herself a Jack and Claire fan but "...thought it interesting to steer in a different direction for once." The result is a thought-provoking story.
"Why would Ben Stone be leaving a message on your machine?"
Claire Kincaid looked up from the blinking red light on her answering machine to see her boss and lover, Jack McCoy, sidle up next to her with a proffered glass of white wine. The heavy clicking and whirring of the message cassette being rewound filled the silence between them.
Claire felt her heart thud and fall to her stomach. "What makes you think that was Ben Stone's voice?" she asked quietly. Indeed, it had been the former district attorney of New York requesting a return call, though he had not left a name. Claire knew Ben's voice. Claire, it's me. If you're there, pick up. Bold and deep, his words boomed through the tiny machine's speaker. She thought for a moment that Ben sounded like she still worked for him.
Claire hoped Jack could not see her hand tremble as she took the glass. Ben Stone, calling her out of the blue. How long had it been, she asked herself, since that night? That night, just after Ben quit the office for good.
He was supposed to be tooling around Europe, soaking in Stonehenge and exotic liquors and scenery to keep his mind off what had led him to resign in the first place. Somebody was murdered...a witness Ben tried desperately to protect in order to secure her testimony. What was her name? She ran a baby food company.
Jack gripped his hi-ball glass with white knuckles and forced a smile. "Come on, Claire. I'm a lawyer, too. You can't possibly believe that somewhere in the course of my career with the state that I didn't meet Ben Stone." He sauntered back into Claire's kitchen, where a four-course dinner of Chinese food entrees awaited them in greasy white boxes. He waded through what looked like a hundred packets of duck and soy sauce for a napkin. "As much I had seen him on television during his heyday, I can say it's damn near impossible to forget that foggy voice of his. So I ask again," he flipped open a box of steamed rice, "why would Ben Stone leave a message on your machine? He isn't your boss anymore. He isn't even supposed to be in this country."
"I guess he came back," Claire replied, not looking at him. She sipped her wine and grimaced at the acrid flavor of the liquid, coughing slightly as it slid down her throat. "Chardonnay with Szechuan, Jack? Why did you give me this?"
Jack shrugged. "'Is all you had left in the fridge."
"No, I had some Early Times in there."
Jack shot her a devilish grin and held up his hi-ball. The ice tinkled in the amber liquid like a wind chime. "True, you did. 'Had' being the operative word."
Claire sighed heavily and pushed past Jack into her tiny cubicle of a kitchen to retrieve some plates. The prospect of moving upstate to find work appealed to her more now than ever before. If it meant getting out of the city and into a house with a kitchen that did not require her to suck in her breath before entering...
"You didn't answer my question," Jack said.
Jack spurned the plate offered to him and plunged his fork into a carton of noodles dripping with thick, brown pepper sauce. "Please don't make me ask it again."
"All right, all right." Claire piled her own plate with sliced beef and fried rice as Jack walked the few inches to her living-slash-dining room. "But can we eat first? I'm still running on that one damn granola bar I had for lunch."
Cartons empty and stomachs full, Jack and Claire rested on her sofa, his hand protectively palming her waist as she snuggled into the crook of his arm with her head on his shoulder. She propped her feet on her coffee table, toeing her soy sauce-streaked plate and eyeing the few rice pockmarks sticking to its edges. Right away she wished that she too had just eaten straight from the carton like Jack did. She hated to clean up after dinner, and damned if Jack was going to help.
Claire mashed the volume button on the stereo remote control to better hear David Sanborn's smooth alto saxophone. "You like that better?"
"Mm," came Jack's sated reply. "Sure beats that John and Yoko crap you tried on me the other night."
A sad smile spread across Claire's face. "The way things are going, you're gonna crucify me."
"You slept with him, didn't you?"
"With whom? John Lennon?"
"Ben Stone." Claire felt Jack's body stiffen under her. She eased herself off the couch and retreated to the safety of her foxhole kitchen for a refill of wine. She welcomed the prospect of swallowing such swill more than filling her mouth with words about Ben Stone, words that were destined to begin an argument. She did not want that, for the day's docket had been stressful enough for the two of them to want to scratch at old wounds. She just wanted to unwind tonight.
Jack fiddled with the remote and, after three unsuccessful tries, managed to shut off the stereo. "I'm taking your reluctance to address the issue as a 'yes'," he called to the open refrigerator door. "You can tell me about it if you want, Claire. I'm not going to play the jealous boyfriend and storm out of here with the intent on knocking out the man's teeth."
"Gee, and to think I though you cared about protecting my virtue," Claire retorted dryly.
Jack snickered to himself and slowly moved to join Claire. "Might as well give me some of that liquid battery acid, I have a feeling I'm going to need it for this story."
"What makes you think I'm going to tell you about me and Ben Stone?" Claire countered, her hands on her hips. "What happened..." she stumbled away from Jack, "happened a long time ago, before you and I met. It was so brief I don't even think I can remember everything."
"You're lying." Jack had backed Claire literally into a corner, his arms bracing the corner countertop and trapping her with a playful smirk. "I saw the look on your face as you listened to that message. Something happened, something you've been carrying with you since Ben Stone cleaned out his desk. He wants to see you again, doesn't he?" He moved closer. Claire felt his breath tickle her cheek. "Wants to fan a flame that might still be burning? What have you to say to that?"
A wave of nausea rippled up Claire's stomach to her throat; she dismissed it quickly thinking that the powerful scent of Jack's cologne. Then, when she closed her eyes as Jack lowered his head to kiss her, the knot inside her loosened and she felt suddenly better, but the lips touching her were not those of the man in her apartment. Claire, it's me...
Dinner was her idea, not so much as a grand gesture toward showing support for her superior in his time of crisis, but as an assurance that Ben would get some food in his stomach to counteract the liquor store he practically swallowed. Since receiving the phone call that heralded Anne Madsen's demise, Ben started immediately on the scotch and sodas, which Claire knew were actually hi-ball glasses of Wild Turkey shown the tightly sealed bottle of seltzer in Ben's private bar before being downed.
When he had emptied every bottle in his cabinet, Ben eyed the passageway to Adam Schiff's office. He knew the old man kept some cheer tucked away. This was when Claire finally intervened and literally dragged Ben away.
"I'm not hungry," Ben growled as Claire stuffed him into a taxi, as she was not about to sacrifice her parking space for anything. The prospect of Ben possibly throwing up in her car occurred to her as well. Ben, though irritated, made no moves to resist her and said nothing on the entire ride to the restaurant. Claire looked on forlornly as Ben simply rested his head against the window, his glazed stare directed at the passing cars and pedestrians along Park Avenue. One would have thought Anne Madsen was Ben's wife, as much as he grieved.
He did not speak again until well into the salad course, when a lovely brunette woman wearing a knee length floral print dress sashayed past their table en route to the ladies' room. Ben dropped his fork, splattering droplets of Caesar dressing on the pristine tablecloth.
Claire watched her disappear into the back of the restaurant. "You know her?"
Ben began to say something, then appeared to change his sentence in mid-thought. "No," he answered in a whisper. "I don't."
"I think I know why you were staring just now, though."
As if Claire had read his mind, Ben nodded in defeat. "She does look like Anne, doesn't she?" He looked up from his plate and smiled; Claire felt her heart soften. Oh, that smile! It seemed to take ten years off of his face, make him more handsome. For some reason, that smile, rare as it was seen during work hours, tended to stir in Claire a passion she had never before experienced with anyone else.
It baffled her, too, as she never considered herself attracted to Ben. He was stiffer than plywood, a knight who preferred to sleep in his armor in the event he might be needed to serve swift justice. In the year Claire had worked at his side, she never once discovered an instance where Ben removed it. Moments of humor from Ben were as rare as his smiles.
He tried to be a knight for Anne Madsen, swearing up and down and sideways that she would be protected from the organized crime outfit that infiltrated her company and used her for their own gain. He had failed, Anne was gunned down in front of her home, and for the first time Claire was able to see cracks in the armor. An urge to reach across the table to touch him came and went. Ben was complacent with her thus far, and Claire was still not so sure why these feelings were erupting in her now.
The main course arrived, and Ben spoke up again. "I see her everywhere," he admitted. "I must have seen her five or six times on the drive up here...crossing the street, riding a bicycle. I keep expecting her to corner me, tell me she's okay." He waved his hands slightly. "I wanted her to be that woman, just now. I wanted to believe the past several hours never happened."
Claire nodded and speared a slice of yellow squash with her fork. "I suppose that's natural when one experiences a loss," she said, only realizing how much like an idiot she sounded after the words were said. If Ben was annoyed with her poor attempt at psychology, he did not appear so to her.
He toyed with his pasta. "All day I'm sitting in my office, drinking and coming up with different ways I could have prevented this..." his voice trailed off as the woman in the floral dress eased past them again. Ben sighed. "I could have done more, Claire. I was so wrapped up in nailing a conviction that for a while it seemed I didn't give a damn what happened to Anne."
Claire bristled as Ben continued to ramble. The way he called her by name...how gentle and vulnerable he sounded. Never had he addressed her in such a manner. I could have done more, Claire... She shuddered as it replayed over and again in her mind. It just sounded so intimate to her.
She noticed the large swirls of fettuccine on his plate had merely shifted from one side to the other, with few strands actually making it to Ben's mouth. "You don't like it?" she asked, nodding to his dinner.
"I'm just not hungry, is all. I appreciate what you're doing, even though I'm acting like a jackass."
"You need to eat," Claire said, concerned. "You're going to feel like shit tomorrow morning and I know I can't the handle the day's docket by myself."
"I'm not going back. I handed in my resignation to Adam today."
Claire felt the words pierce her heart. "What?" Patrons from surrounding tables turned to stare, and she lowered her voice. "Just like that?" she demanded. "Just because of one case you're going to toss away your career like it was nothing?"
Ben gave Claire a hollow look. "A woman died, Claire," he said bitterly. The warmth in his address was gone.
"People die, Ben. It's not as if you pulled the trigger."
"I might as well have," he shook his head, "for what little I did for her." He banged his fork against his plate in double time; Claire thought it some sort of unconscious nervous tic.
Impulsively Claire reached over and stilled his hand. At once Ben's grim face softened, surprised by the gesture. "You did everything you could to help her, Ben," she said. "A person has only so much power in certain situations." She saw his clouded eyes, perfectly pickled after a day of drinking. "There's no sense in slowly killing yourself over Anne Madsen. Getting drunk isn't going to bring her back. You should be thinking now of those future witnesses who are alive and will need your help."
Another smile appeared; Claire let her hand slide away from his.
"Just pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again, so the song goes," Ben chuckled, downing his glass of scotch. "I never pegged you to be some sunshine happy optimist."
Claire blushed. "I'm not so na´ve to think bad things won't happen in this line of work," she replied. "But I know you're making a big mistake in resigning."
"I can't be a prosecuting attorney anymore, Claire. Not at this level."
The waiter arrived to clear the table, disappointed by both Ben's and Claire's refusal for dessert. "At least take a few days to think about it," she proposed. "I'm sure Adam won't jump the gun in announcing a vacancy in the office this soon. Take a vacation."
Ben flexed his right hand into a fist, seriously craving another drink. "I think I'm already on one." Then he laughed a silly drunken laugh, attracting further glances from around the room.
"You're gone," Claire stated the obvious and flipped her American Express card on top of the bill folder the waiter brought to them. "I'm taking you home."
"I'm not ready to go home."
"Well, I'm not going to leave you alone when you're like this."
There was that smile again. "Okay, chaperone," he slurred rather snidely. "Where to now?"
They ended up, of all places, in a bar somewhere off of Broadway near Times Square. Ben didn't even bother to check the name of place, he saw only the seductive glow of the neon beer advertisements hanging in the smoky windows and he made a beeline for the place, with Claire in tow. Inside, the bar lived up to its drab exterior -- a refuge from light and light-heartedness.
Ben slouched in a stool and drank deeply from a beer mug, while Claire stuck with diet soda. In the distance a jukebox blared "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits at high volume. Only the racket from an energetic game of 8-Ball toward the front of the bar could be heard over the din.
The bartender, a beefy, tattooed man with stringy brown hair and a handlebar mustache, gave Claire a silent yet bemused once-over as he wiped a glass with a dirty white towel. Suddenly Claire felt self-conscious, realizing how out of place she and Ben looked in their business suits among the small throng of leather and denim clad bar patrons. She did not feel threatened by their appearances and curious stares, however, as many of the men -- in fact, Claire was the only woman present -- were rather subdued, unwinding from a hard day's work in the blue-collar world.
She turned around back to the bar and noticed the beer taps in front of Ben. One of them was shaped like a nude woman; the bartender wrapped his knuckles around the miniature plastic breasts to refill Ben's mug. Ben found the whole thing easily amusing.
"My father used to come to a place like this, when I was younger. Joe's Bar, it was called," he said dreamily over the music. "A real shit hole of a place, every chair had bits of stuffing coming out at different places. The dartboard was always crooked and the place smelled like Winston-Salem, but he loved it."
For the first time that night, Claire managed to smile at Ben's sudden mood swings, encouraging him. "There was only one tap at the bar, and God only knows what spewed from it. Nobody ever asked, it was cheap and cold, that was all that mattered. Anyway, I was about sixteen and went down one night with him and this guy comes in. Never seen him before in my life. He asks Joe if he could get a Fehr's on draft, and Joe opens up this drawer and checks inside and says sure, I got Fehr's."
Ben took another long pull from his mug, licking the foam from his lips, smiling as if he were about to tell the funniest joke in the world. "So this guy sits down at the bar, and Joe opens the drawer wider to reveal a collection of beer tap handles! He finds the Fehr's one, replaces the Falls City stick already on the tap and pours the man a beer." Laughter rang all around them, and Claire noticed a grin lining the bartender's mustache.
"No," Ben said after he had calmed down himself. "I miss that place. Joe's got to be dead and buried now. Just like Anne Madsen..."
Claire picked up her drink and eased off the stool. Ben's mood was darkening again and she wondered how much longer this night with Jeckyl and Hyde was going to last. Ben needed to dry out, and fast.
Mark Knopfler's smooth steel guitar faded out in the background and Claire seized the opportunity to speak while the fleeting quiet remained. "You shoot pool, Ben?"
"Not since college."
Thudding bass music erupted from the jukebox, introducing Steve Miller's "The Joker" to the bar's atmosphere. Claire extracted two quarters from her skirt pocket and slapped them on the pool table, reserving the next game. "Come on, Ben. One game, it's like riding a bike. I promise I won't embarrass you in front of all these he-men."
"That so?" Ben sensed a challenge and soon the other patrons at the bar developed an interest in the exchange between the two suits.
Claire had removed her charcoal blazer and was rolling up the cuffs of her blouse when Ben finally stood. "I figure since you're not feeling so lucky tonight I might have a shot kicking some self-pitying ass."
That comment alone seemed to sober up Ben, and Claire gave him a sly smile. She knew he hated to lose, in the courtroom and anywhere else.
"Okay, slick, you're on," he bantered right back, selecting a cue. "What's the wager?"
"If I win, you rescind your resignation."
Ben arched an eyebrow. "If I win?"
"Name it." Claire arched one of hers in return.
"I'll think of something," Ben nodded, and once the table was free Claire racked the billiard balls for the game.
After thirty-five minutes, two more beers for the both of them, a mini-marathon of Steely Dan tunes, and a few wolf whistles directed at Claire whenever she bent over the table to study a shot, the game was over. Claire scratched the number eight while trying to sink a striped ball in the far-left corner pocket. Ben let out a loud victory whoop as a smattering of applause followed.
"Damn!" Claire cursed, reaching for Ben's beer before he could down the rest of it. Ben, taken aback by her boldness, did not let the loss of his beer dampen his now high spirits. Anne Madsen's death was slowly retreating into distant memory.
"You had me going there for a while," he observed, thinking back to fifteen minutes prior when Claire managed to sink three in a row before allowing him a turn.
"Not bad for a sunshine happy optimist, huh?" she retorted. Claire sighed. It was a valiant effort on her part anyway, and she wondered if, had she won, Ben would have backtracked on the resignation anyway. Would he even remember this night the next morning? "Well, you win." She lay her cue on the table and held up her hands in defeat. "What shall your prize be?"
The high-pitched twang that began Bob Seger's "Main Street" began to play, and Ben winked. "I want a dance." He held out his hand to her. "How about it, Claire?"
How about it, Claire... Gentle Ben was back, his smoky voice caressing her ears and making her shiver. Instinctively she lowered her gaze to the sticky concrete floor. The smile was certain to follow, and her heart was beating fast enough as it was. What was happening to her, she wanted to know. How could it be that Ben Stone was slowly turning her to jelly?
Quietly she approached Ben to a clearing by the jukebox and let him put his left arm around her waist to draw her even closer. He took her left hand in his right and they began a slow, awkward sway to the music. She had to crane her neck nearly ninety degrees to see his face.
"What?" Ben said softly, noticing the curious look on his dance partner.
"Huh? Oh nothing." Claire let her gaze sweep the room, catching a glimpse of their reflection in the bar mirror. She saw herself being held close to Ben Stone, his eyes intently on her.
"I-I just never realized before how much taller you are than I am," she added. It was true, for Claire's line of sight just met Ben's throat. She saw him swallow hard and then took a deep breath, drinking in his aftershave. She did not recognize the scent, it was strong and exotic, not quite scent she imagined somebody like Ben would wear. She had always thought him to be an Old Spice man, though in the year they had worked together she never really noticed such things.
"That's me," he chuckled. "Tall, drunk, and handsome."
"Well, two out of three ain't bad."
"Behave," Ben teased. "Or else I'll have to do this." Without warning, he loosened his grip around her waist and dipped her backward, causing her to squeal lightly. Claire's medium-length dark pageboy was rustled slightly from the sudden movement, and as Ben steered her forward she let go of him for a second to smooth her hair back down.
"I really have been acting like a jackass," he said seriously. "I'm very sorry."
"Don't be. I'd probably behave the same way if I were going through the same thing."
She shifted her body in order to step to the music more comfortably, with her thigh grazing Ben's lower body. It was then that Claire felt the stiffness in his groin area.
Claire gasped and looked up at Ben. In the dimly lit room, he looked so different to her, so handsome. Her body trembled against his, realizing that now for the first time she was seeing Ben Stone as a man, a man with feelings and desires, not just a lawyer who casually tossed her documents to research and file. Here was a man who ached, just as she did, to be close to someone.
She closed her eyes, sensing the space between them shrinking as Ben lowered his head to kiss her. It was a quiet, sweet kiss, the kind one would expect from a nervous first date, only this one tasted like alcohol, Claire thought. That did not bother her, though, and she gently tilted her head to one side to prolong it. Bob Seger continued to sing about Main Street as Claire's hand trailed down Ben's chest to his waist.
He broke off the kiss and brushed his cheek against hers. "You don't know how long I've wanted to do that," he confessed.
"Oh?" Claire felt numb, her lower body quivering as if she were about to crumble to the floor. "How long?"
"Since day one. Even when I so angry with you that I wanted you to resign, I found it difficult not to picture you in your underwear."
Claire laughed out loud, tossing her head back, starting to feel the effects of the few drinks she had consumed. As the tingling in her senses heightened she straightened immediately to avoid getting sick.
"Why did you not say anything sooner?"
"We worked together, it wouldn't have been appropriate," was Ben's reply. The word 'worked' echoed in Claire's mind.
She looked up at Ben again. He was not laughing with her.
"Would it be possible to exchange this dance for something else, or has the statute of limitations on my billiards win expired?" he whispered.
Claire felt the blood rush to her head and places beyond. "Best of three?"
"Let's not and say we did."
They were in a taxi and halfway to Claire's apartment before she remembered her car. No matter, she thought. It was not worth stealing, and if someone did she had plenty of insurance.
She had trouble getting the key in her door lock with Ben stroking her shoulders and nibbling at her with increasing urgency. Once they were inside they nearly lost balance and almost rammed into the tiny table Claire kept in her small foyer for disposing of her keys and loose change. She quickly shed her purse and blazer and Ben let his coat slide off, leaving it in a dark blue puddle at her door.
Ben had her around the waist again, lifting Claire from her black heels as she wrapped her legs around him and pulled him into another, deeper kiss.
"This way," Claire motioned toward her bedroom. Miraculously, they were able to get there without ramming into any walls, with Ben's line of sight being blocked.
Whatever Ben had been drinking that day, not to mention how much, thought Claire, did little to slow his dexterity. He lay her easily on her back, hovering over her while bracing himself on the mattress with his elbows. With nimble fingers he plucked away every button on Claire's blouse to reveal a wispy white bra. The front hook proved to be a more difficult task, one Claire attributed to a possible lack of experience on Ben's part in dealing with such contraptions.
"Need help?" she whispered, and Ben shook his head.
"This is half the fun," he whispered back, unlocking the plastic hook after a few seconds. He peeled away each lacy cup to expose her breasts, heaving slightly with Claire's every breath.
"So beautiful," he murmured, dipping his head down to capture a nipple. Claire let out a soft moan, writhing underneath Ben's touch. She could not help feeling that this entire night -- the bar, the game, now -- was but a hallucination brought on by the few drinks she allowed herself during Ben's drinking spree. This was Ben Stone, in her apartment, on her bed, making love to her! The white knight's armor was coming apart.
Well, most of it. Ben still had on his clothes, and the bulge in his pants was rock solid.
"Aren't you going to share what's down there?" she asked playfully.
Ben let go of her breast and looked into her eyes with an impish grin. "If you want my clothes off, you'll have to do it yourself."
Claire smiled, then complied.
"What happened then?"
Claire was growing tired of the tinny jazz. She knelt in front of her stereo, sliding disc one of Frampton Come Alive into the compact disc player. Jack remained on the sofa, the empty wine bottle on the floor by his side.
"What do you mean, what happened?" she asked back, annoyed. "We made love. You want all the gory details? You want me to tell you that he was a stallion, and that he knew enough Kama Sutra to keep me in ecstasy for hours on end?"
"Did he?" Jack inquired with mock enthusiasm.
Claire ignored the crack. "Why do care anyway? It was a long time ago, and nothing came of it because a few days later Ben was on a plane to Europe and you came zipping along on your motorcycle."
"That's why I'm interested," Jack said, beckoning Claire to rejoin him. "For something that was 'nothing' you certainly let it bother you. Did you want something more to come of it?"
Claire slumped down on the opposite end of the sofa. "No, I mean, I don't know..." her gaze drifted toward her bedroom door. "It just happened so fast, and to listen to Ben one would have thought he harbored this schoolboy crush the entire time we worked together."
Jack reached over to stroke her hair; Claire did not resist. "I guess sometimes I wonder what might have been with Ben," she admitted. "Even afterward as he held me I knew he wasn't going back to the DA's office, that things would never be the same between us. I didn't expect him to just disappear without notice, though."
"So that's it," Jack nodded. "It's not that it ended, it's how it ended."
Claire looked up at Jack, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "I don't want to talk about the past, anymore. I don't live in the past."
Jack, however, was not entirely ready to give the topic a rest. "Do you regret it?" he asked gently.
She shook her head.
"Do you regret us? Do you think we're 'inappropriate'?"
"No!" The answer came quickly, almost vehemently. "I don't compare you to Ben, either, or anyone else."
Jack smiled and opened his arms to enclose Claire. "And I won't ask you to take any more trips down Memory Lane."
They kissed, at first slowly and softly, then with more intensity as Jack sank backward into the sofa, with Claire on top of him. They remained in that position for a good ten minutes before the shrill ring of Claire's telephone shattered the mood.
Claire's head shot upward. A second and third drawn-out ring followed. Jack, becoming more and more annoyed by the distraction, made a move to slide from underneath Claire to answer it himself.
"No," Claire remained frozen, bringing Jack's arm around to her back. "Let it ring. The machine will pick it up."