Stanley was surprised to get a phone call from Albert Bennett Sr. because contact was usually made the other way around. Albert Sr. explained that he wanted Stanley to arrange a meeting between him and the governor. Stanley balked, claiming he didn’t have that kind of influence; he just raised money and, by the way, how much was Albert Sr. planning to donate to the senate campaign, thank you very much, and “maybe your son would like to toss a few dollars into the pot too, now that he’s out of law school and working at the firm.”
Albert Sr. explained to Stanley that he (Stanley) was misunderstanding the purpose of the phone call. Albert Sr. was not sure that he would be donating any money to the next campaign and, even more troubling for the governor and Stanley was that, perhaps, no one at all would be donating any money to the campaign unless Albert Sr. got what he wanted: a private face-to-face meeting with Governor Jack Gardner.
“What is this Al? What are you trying to pull?” Are you threatening us?” snapped Stanley.
Albert Sr. swore to Stanley that he was not “threatening anyone” nor “trying to pull anything.” The fact was that Albert Sr. had a client who wanted to sue the governor personally and, Albert Sr. assured Stanley, that if the suit did move forward, the publicity would have a devastating effect on Gardner’s electability. Albert Sr. then confided in Stanley that he didn’t really want to sue the governor, but “business is business” and that was precisely the reason that a private and confidential meeting between himself and his client with the governor was essential. Albert Sr. guaranteed Stanley that the meeting was the quickest, simplest, and most discreet solution for all concerned.
Stanley told Albert Sr. that he would call him back within forty-eight hours. Stanley phoned Mrs. Gardner who, after listening, told Stanley they would “take the meeting,” she would personally attend as well, and he (Stanley) should phone the governor and inform him of these facts. Stanley did as he was told and then phoned Albert Sr. to arrange the time and date of the meeting.
The meeting would be at 10:00 a.m. one week from Wednesday at the governor’s office at party headquarters in Corpus Christi. Albert Sr. had no objection to Mrs. Gardner being present, but he insisted that neither the governor’s chief of staff nor any other staff member be in attendance. For his part, Albert Sr. said, he would be present with only his client and his client’s guardian.
“Guardian?” said Stanley. “Say, what the hell is this?”
“Not for you to know, Stanley,” he said crisply, hanging up the phone.
Eva’s expensive black wig was picture-perfect. Teresa spent two hours that morning helping Eva with it and putting a dark make-up foundation on Eva’s face, neck, hands, and arms. Eva wore a print blouse with Capri pants, dark hose, and high heels. Teresa spent twenty minutes putting her own brand of eye shadow and mascara on Eva, and she loaned her an original pair of Mexican earrings and matching bracelet which Teresa’s mother had given her when she was a girl. They both agreed that “Rafael’s sister” would not wear rings on any of her fingers. Eva meticulously painted her fingernails with a bright red polish while mentally reviewing the Spanish phrases Albert Sr. had given Teresa to translate.
¿Es este el hombre? (Is this the man?)
Este es el hombre que llevó a su casa lejos de ti? (This is the man who took your house?)
¿Estás seguro de que este es el hombre? (Are you sure this is the man?)
The three of them rode in the elevator to the governor’s office alone. Eva stood against the back wall with Teresa, and Albert Sr. stood to one side, staring at her.
“What are you staring at, Albert?” she said as the elevator steadily climbed.
“You,” he said as if marveling a priceless art work. “No matter how you dress or what kind of make-up you wear, you still take my breath away.”
Eva laughed. Teresa raised her eyebrows and cast her eyes downward.
Albert Sr. approached the receptionist with Eva and Teresa behind him.
“I’m Albert Bennett,” he said, “I have an appointment with the governor.”
“Please take a seat,” she said formally. “I’ll let the governor know you’re here.”
“Are we all set?” Albert Sr. asked them when they’d all sat. He had chosen the chairs furthest from the receptionist’s desk. “Eva, you know what to do, right?”
“Sure,” whispered Eva. “Play dumb.”
“Not exactly,” said Albert Sr., gesturing with both index fingers in his best client-coaching mode. “You’re not playing dumb exactly; you’re playing illiterate. You know what’s going on; you just don’t understand the language.”
“Si,” she said, winking at Teresa.
“Don’t take this lightly, Eva,” he whispered. “If Gardner realizes we’re scamming him, you lose your only chance to take down the Blanco’s, and I’m damn sure my law firm will suddenly become inundated by unpleasant inquiries from the state legislative committee on legal oversight and ethics.”
The receptionist approached them. “Mr. Bennett, the governor will see you now. Right this way, sir.”
Her first impression upon entering Gardner’s office was how massive his desk was. Behind it was a large glass window revealing miles of Corpus Christi’s most expensive downtown real estate. A flag stood proudly on each side of the huge desk: the United States of America on one side and the state of Texas on the other.
Jack Gardner, tall, tanned, athletic-looking, full head of white hair, strutted confidently from behind his desk and extended his hand.
“Albert Bennett,” he said, smiling warmly. “How the hell have you been? It’s been … how long since I’ve last seen you?”
“At least two years,” said Albert Sr., shaking his hand. “I didn’t go to last year’s fund fleece. My stomach’s getting too particular to be tortured at those rubber chicken galas.”
“Me too,” said Gardner, chuckling, “but I have no choice. Anyway, that’s fine, I understand, just so you send the money, right? We’ve got another one coming up in about … oh … two weeks or so down here, by the way.” Gardner grinned and playfully tapped Albert’s shoulder with his fist. “You know my wife, Helen, don’t you?” He gestured toward the plump woman sitting with her chubby legs crossed in an armchair to the right of his desk.
Albert nodded. “I believe we have met—once. Nice to see you again, Mrs. Gardner.”
She inclined her head briefly, exhaled cigarette smoke through her nose, and turned to gaze out the wall of picture windows to her left.
“And who have we here?” said the governor, looking at Teresa and then up and down at Eva.
“This is my client,” said Albert, pointing at Eva. “Señorita Mena and her guardian, Teresa.”
“How nice to meet you,” he said, extending his hand toward Eva.
Eva stiffened, and her hands remained severely down along her sides. She stared into Gardner’s eyes with a spiteful bitterness that impelled him to step back and stare slack jawed at Albert. Watching closely, Helen sat up in her chair, reached across to the ash tray on the desk, and stubbed out her cigarette.
“What the hell’s going on here, Al?” Gardner snapped.
“May we sit down?” Albert Sr. answered, motioning toward the chairs stationed in front of the governor’s substantial desk.
“I’ll get right to the point,” said Albert Sr. after everyone was seated.
“You damn well better,” spit out Gardner.
“Actually, Governor,” said Albert Sr. “you’ve met my client before, about twelve years ago.”
“What of it,” he argued. “I meet a lot of people; anyway I don’t remember meeting her.”
Eva intensified her embittered stare at Gardner, and he looked away.
“I’m not surprised,” said Albert St. “Twelve years ago she was just a child. Even so, surely you must remember her being frightened out of her wits while you were occupying her house and threatening her family.”
“Wait just a minute!” shouted Helen, craning her neck to get a better look at Eva. “Is this some kind of bullshit child molestation thing you’re trying to pull here?”
“No,” he said bluntly, dismissing Helen with a brief glance. “Twelve years ago, governor, you were the state attorney general of Texas.”
“So?” he said.
Albert turned to Teresa. “Ask her if this is the man?”
“¿Es este el hombre?” Teresa asked.
“Si,” said Eva, continuing to glare at Gardner.
“What man?” he sputtered. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Ignoring him, Albert Sr. said to Teresa, “Ask her if this is the man who took her house?”
“Este es el hombre que llevó a su casa lejos de ti?”
“Wait just one damn minute here . . .!” he yelled.
“Ask her if she’s sure,” said Albert, interrupting him.
“¿Estás seguro de que este es el hombre?” Teresa asked, slowly pronouncing each word.”
“Si, si,” said Eva, spitting the words out like venom.
Jack Gardner looked at his wife and then back at them. Eva saw he was worried.
“Twelve years ago,” Albert began, carefully addressing both Jack and Helen, “after you became attorney general, you forced the Mena family off their property and illegally transferred that property to Carmella and Juan Blanco in exchange for a sizeable donation to your campaign.”
“I did no such thing!” he protested.
“That’s nonsense,” Helen piped up.
Albert smiled. “My client was there when you did it, and she can testify to that in court. Furthermore, I’m sure with discovery motions I’ll able to prove that any property transfer documents or bill of sale that might exist are forgeries. You know, governor,” Albert Sr. said, leaning forward, “I am very thorough when it comes to my work.”
Gardner looked at his wife, and Eva saw tiny beads of sweat forming on his forehead. His face was creased with apprehension.
“I’m also very good at planting stories in the press,” said Albert, “and I just can’t imagine how this juicy tale of a corruption could help with your senate campaign, can you?”
“This is preposterous . . .” Gardner sputtered.
“Not to mention the fact, Jack, that you could end up needing a damn good lawyer yourself. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to take your case—conflict of interest and all that. But I could recommend someone.” He grinned and sat back in his chair.
“So what does she want,” Helen said acidly, “the property back?”
“Someday,” said Albert, nodding. “But that’s not what we want today.”
“What do you want today?” Gardner demanded.
“Your help,” said Albert, smiling.
“Harrumph,” from Helen.
“You’ve got a peculiar way of asking for help, Bennett,” said the governor, “trying to blackmail me!”
“Jack,” said Albert comfortably, “all we want from you is . . . nothing.”
Gardner eyed him suspiciously.
“In a few weeks we’re bringing evidence to the state police of several specific crimes committed by the Blanco’s against my client. We are going to sign complaints and insist that official police action be taken. All we want from you is nothing. We don’t want you to warn the Blanco’s, and we particularly don’t want you to interfere with or erect any obstacles whatsoever to the state police making an arrest in this case. We want the Blanco’s to pay for what they’ve done to my client and her family.”
Feigning insult, Gardner said, “Why, I’ve never interfered with a legitimate investigation in my . . .”
“Jack,” Albert laughed. “Come off of it, buddy. This is me you’re talking to. You’ve been protecting the Blanco’s’ illegal drug trade for over ten years. That’s how they’ve become so wealthy, powerful, and you haven’t done badly yourself, have you?”
“Those are scurrilous rumors,” said Helen defiantly. “That’s all gossip and hearsay; none of that has ever been proven; can’t be proven!”
“Until now, Mrs. Gardner,” said Albert, looking at her. “No one’s had proof until now, but that’s changed.” He pointed at Eva. “Señorita Mena changes everything.” Eva raised her chin boldly and glowered at Helen Gardner.
“Wait just a minute here,” said Helen, standing. “How do we even know your client is genuine? For all we know she could be a total fake, some little whore angling for a big payday”
Eva’s face froze and her eyes drilled into Helen’s. Helen Gardner stared back, took two steps toward Eva, and shouted, “¿Cómo sabemos que usted es quien dice ser? ¿Cómo abemos que esto no es una especie de truco?” (“How do we know you are who you say you are? How do we know this isn’t some kind of a trick?”)
Uncertain, Eva glanced sideways at Teresa, struggling to mask her confusion. Helen took another step forward and Eva stiffened.
Helen repeated the interrogation, louder. “¿Cómo sabemos que usted es quien dice ser? ¿Cómo sabemos que esto no es una especie de truco?”
Abruptly, Eva vaulted out of her chair, pointed at Governor Gardner, and cried, “Este el hombre! Este el hombre! Este el hombre!” As if possessed, Eva began shaking her head from side to side all the while yelling, “Este el hombre! Este el hombre! Este el hombre!”
The door flew open and the governor’s receptionist gaped at the spectacle of a young Latino woman facing the governor, swinging her head wildly, and screaming in Spanish at the top of her lungs, “This is the man! This is the man! This is the man!”
“Jesus Christ, Albert,” yelped the governor, shrieking to be heard over Eva. “Shut her the hell up will you!”