The conference room adjacent to the cells was stark. A single wooden table with four, gray, metal, folding chairs constituted the only furniture. The cement block walls were painted a lime green, which had faded considerably over the years. The room had no windows. A metal door with a one-foot-square piece of glass allowed guards to monitor the room from the hallway.
At Red’s suggestion Eva sat at the table. He stood ready to intercept Rafael the moment he was brought into the room. Tense, Eva inspected the cracks in the walls, attempting to focus her thoughts, which were crisscrossing the room like errant tennis balls: How is he? Is he all right? How did he escape? How did he get here? Will he have to go to prison? Worse? Texas has a death penalty, doesn’t it? How does he look? Does he still care about me? Did he forgive me? Does he still love me?
The door opened and a policeman entered with a sheet of paper that he handed to Red. “Captain Walker said to give you this,” he said. He immediately left the room.
Eva looked at Red apprehensively. Red scanned the sheet. “It’s a typed copy of his statement,” he said and sat next to Eva. They both began to read:
My name is Rafael Mena. I was a prisoner of the Blancos for many years after they stole our house and our land. I tried to escape with my father, but he died of a heart attack in the underground tunnel. I left his body in the tunnel and escaped by myself to Mexico. I went to Mexico to search for my mother and my sister but I did not find them. I worked on the ranch of a horse breeder until one day I see a newspaper that show the picture of the Blancos on the front page. I stole a pistol from the ranch owner and I snuck back across the border. I waited across the street from the courthouse every day looking for the Blanco’s’ car, waiting for them to come back for their trial like the newspaper said. After ten days, I see them drive up and go into the courthouse. I went across the street and waited on the front steps because I could see their big car waiting for them. When they came out the front door of the court I shot them both.
Signed, Rafael Mena
Eva looked at Red. “Is it bad?” she asked nervously.
Red tapped his fingertips together. “It’s never good when your client flaps his jawbone, darling,” he said. “That’s what us lawyers get paid outrageous amounts of cash to do.”
The lock snapped and the door opened. Holding Rafael by the arm, a beefy policeman escorted him into the room. Rafael looked at Eva and his eyes went as round as twin moons in a night sky. Before Rafael could budge, Red blocked him. Standing in front of Rafael with his hand on the boy’s chest, Red said, “Please, take the handcuffs off my client, officer.”
The beefy policeman obliged, attached the handcuffs to his belt, and left the room. Red whispered something to Rafael that Eva could not make out. Red led him to the table and positioned him in the chair across from Eva, and sat next to him.
Eva examined Rafael’s face. He was thinner and he looked shattered. His hair was mussed and stubble covered his face. He stared at Eva expressionless, blinking his eyes several times as if struggling to focus them.
Gradually and without flourish, he smiled at Eva, and it was the most enchanting smile she’d ever witnessed. It reminded Eva of a picture in a children’s book she’d read to Tina many years ago: a toddler smiling at an enormous, twinkling, ornamented Christmas tree upon waking up. Eva heard her heart pounding furiously in her chest, and she was positive that both men had to be hearing it as well.
Rafael’s eyes never strayed from Eva’s face. He fixed on her as if he were mesmerized. His lips parted, aching to speak, but nothing came out. Eva watched his chest expand and his breath noticeably quicken; hers did the same.
Eva gazed intently into Rafael’s large brown eyes. “I love you.” She mouthed the words. “I love you,” he mouthed in return.
Eva cautiously inched her hands across the table top until the tips of her fingers finally, mercifully, touched the tips of Rafael’s fingers; electricity shot through her body and she quivered. Eva’s eyes flooded with tears and a heaviness she’d been carrying inside her chest for over a decade evaporated.
Red Pepper opted for a bench trial rather than a jury trial. He argued before Judge Jordan Peters (and the television cameras in the hallway) that at the time of the shooting his client, Rafael Mena, tormented by the loss of his entire family at the hands of the Blancos, suffered from diminished capacity and temporary insanity and therefore was incapable of knowing the nature of his alleged criminal act. Judge Jordan Peters found Rafael guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Acknowledging the defendant’s impassioned mental state, years of forced captivity by the Blancos, and a complete lack of any prior criminal activity, Peters imposed a one-year suspended sentence.
Carmella Blanco suffered a severed spinal cord and lived in a Texas state medical facility for the remaining fifteen years of her life. She was completely paralyzed.
The three Blanco children were adopted by their aunt, Carmella’s younger sister, and returned with her to Colombia.
Denise gave birth to a healthy baby boy, eight pounds, seven ounces. She named him Albert Jerry Bennett, III. Denise and Eva remain close friends.
Albert Bennett, Sr. never remarried. Eva persuaded him to represent Rafael in a civil lawsuit against the state of Texas to have the Blanco’s’ compound returned to Rafael, the only surviving member of his family. Following a one-year legal battle, Rafael’s claim was upheld and the compound was returned to him.
Albert Bennett, Jr. tragically died in a speed-boat accident the following year. Authorities suspected that alcohol may have been involved.
Red Pepper won election to the US Senate after his opponent, Governor Jack Gardner, mysteriously withdrew “to spend more time with his family.”
Red Pepper was married and divorced one more time and reelected to a second senatorial term. He died in a plane crash during a fact-finding mission to Vietnam as part of his work as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A year after the failed senatorial election, the Gardners divorced. Jack Gardner moved to Connecticut and worked as a wrestling promoter for the rest of his life. Helen Gardner reclaimed her maiden name, Schwartz; sold her jewelry business for ten million dollars and spent the rest of her life living on the French Riviera with a second-rate artist who did his best work when he was painting Helen’s toes.
Melanie and her husband, Henry Hine, became millionaires after he invented improvements to the electric hair dryer that were adopted by virtually every hair salon in Las Vegas and New Mexico before eventually migrating to both coasts.
Albert Sr. arranged for the outstanding warrant on Eva to be squashed. Six months later, the accommodating judge received a $5,000 donation to his reelection campaign from Eva Mena.
Eva contacted Tina’s adoptive mother and requested to meet with Tina. The mother strongly discouraged the meeting, and Eva acceded to the woman’s wishes.
Eva and Rafael married in a church ceremony after Rafael convinced Eva that his parents would smile down at them from heaven if they were married in church. Eva agreed, without mentioning to Rafael that, perhaps, her own parents might have done the same.
On December 12, 1980, Apple launched the IPO of its stock to the investing public at $22 a share. Lou Riner advised Eva to invest, and she authorized a purchase of $350,000. The investment reaped Eva several hundred million dollars in long-term capital gains.
Eva and Rafael founded The Tina Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to assisting battered women to reclaim their lives. With over 17,000 affiliated offices nationwide, to date, the foundation has helped nearly 500,000 battered women mount legal defenses against their tormentors, complete high school or even college, and secure productive employment.
Eva and Rafael moved into the compound. Rafael boards and breeds race horses for wealthy American, Latin American, and European race horse owners. Eva spends the majority of her time serving as CEO of The Tina Foundation and raising her three children: Tina, Melanie, and Rafael Mena Jr. whom she nicknamed Angel.
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