Glynis Banks served blueberry pancakes to her granddaughters for breakfast and asked them about the movie from the previous night. Each girl had Googled the plot and rehearsed a scene to cite as their favorite. Instead of going to the theater, they stayed at the restaurant until nine o’clock and then spoke with Ms. Singer in the parking lot until almost ten, providing their home number and promising never to deceive her like that again. After Jennifer drove away in the passenger seat of Ed’s car, the girls conducted their own strategy session in the Honda Pilot as they drove aimlessly around San Antonio. In the glow of the passing streetlights, they buzzed about how they might help bring home their dad, while also planning how to explain their evening to their weekend caretaker.
“Mom’s gonna be pissed,” Ashley mused. “It’ll be nice to see Emily get a dose of Storm Stephie for once.”
Despite the sick, sinking feeling in her stomach, Emily laughed along with Ashley’s comment. She felt more confident in presenting their findings to their mother with the backing of her two big sisters than when she thought she’d have to face her alone.
Jennifer Singer’s call hit Stephanie’s phone at 9am sharp on Sunday morning. Not still asleep, but having laid in bed staring into the silver morning light of her dead quiet bedroom, Stephanie’s voice cracked as she answered.
“They did what?” she quickly sat upright with the phone to her ear. “You did what? How could you? Do you have any idea… Jesus Christ… You should have double-checked... You should have contacted me directly… That’s no excuse. My home number’s listed.”
Jennifer apologized profusely and Stephanie, completely worn from two weeks of mental, physical and legal struggle, relented in her reprimand.
“I appreciate the thought,” she said, recognizing Jennifer’s angst in the crack of her voice and the soft sobbing between her words. “I know you’re just trying to help. I can see the confusion. My girls lied. I get that. Thanks for the heads up.”
During the call with Jennifer, Rupert texted Stephanie with a single, disturbing line.
“Bad News,” he said. “Give me a call when you wake up.”
Stephanie thanked Jennifer again and exhaled sharply. She wanted to call, but couldn’t bear any further stress on a Sunday morning before her first cup of coffee.
Rupert sent a second text as Stephanie poured the beans into the filter.
“Good news: Sen Sanchez’s investigator found Chico,” he texted. “Bad News for our plan to turn him over to the feds and score points with Judge McGiverny: he’s dead.”
“Dead?” she texted back to Rupert.
“OD’ed on meth,” he replied. “Saw the pictures. Looked like a skeleton all sickly and decayed. Must’ve been dead for a month. Poor bastard.”
Stephanie sipped her hot coffee and felt the caffeine jolt as the warm liquid seeped down her throat and into her stomach. She thought about calling. Her agitation swirled. She didn’t care about some dead black-market identity dealer in that moment. Her three girls had engaged with a dark ops social activist organization without telling her. The thought terrified her.
She knew Rupert could help her sort through her emotions, but felt selfish to keep laying her problems on him. She also decided to prioritize a conversation with her girls about their dangerous and reckless behavior. The more her mind raced, the more a conversation with Emily rose to the top of her agenda. Before dialing her youngest, and usually most innocent daughter, she texted Rupert.
“Tied up this morning with another in my long line of crises,” she wrote. “Have to think through how to handle something and then take care of it. Free for lunch?”
Britney drove home from their grandmother’s house. After breakfast, they lounged on the couch with their mother’s mother for about a half-hour and then politely thanked her before setting off to Pleasanton. Ashley rested her compact legs against the dashboard, bobbing her head to the music on the radio. Emily sat rigid in the back seat, anticipating the call from her mother at any moment.
“How cool was that group?” Britney asked, more animated than her usual downtrodden personality. “I could totally see myself working with a group like that.”
Ashley shrugged and Emily stared ahead, like a death row inmate in the slow comatose march to the chamber. Britney continued, obliviously.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer when I was younger,” she said. “Daddy used to tell me I’d be a great lawyer.”
“You’re not mean enough,” Ashley said.
“Daddy said I’d be a good lawyer because I’d care about my clients so much that I’d do anything to help them.”
Ashley and Britney paid little attention.
“I wonder if the University of Texas has a Law School?”
Chuck sat on the woodworking table in his host family’s back yard. The tarp above his head flittered in the breeze. He took in the sights and smells of the colorful flowers and the expansive wild grass that covered the bog and swayed in the wind. Their thin wispy motion remined him of Mirabella’s sultry hips dancing with her arms extended above her head.
He could hear Pedro and Mirabella conversing in Spanish through the kitchen as well as the jolt of the refrigerator and the rattle of glass bottles.
Mirabella sat next to Chuck and handed him a beer.
“You drink,” she said, clanking a bottle against his. “I drink. He drink. She drink. We drink. They all drink.”
Chuck didn’t correct her conjugation and simply nudged his shoulder against hers in appreciation.
They sat in silence, pressed against each other.
“You sad?” Mirabella asked.
“Sí,” Chuck answered in Spanish. “Triste.”
“Yo también,” she said. “Me also.”
“No matter what happens, I want to thank you,” Chuck said, eschewing the Spanish. “I know you can’t understand me. Part of me wishes I could stay here in this beautiful country. With you and Pedro. But, I can’t.”
From behind him, Pedro translated. Mirabella simply looked out over the same landscape that fascinated Chuck and nodded her head.
“I go,” she said. “I have the work.”
“Regreso al hotel,” said Pedro, which Chuck loosely interpreted to mean ‘go to the hotel’. “Hablar con el señor Casteneda.”
“If he need money to pay off señor Grande,” Pedro said as his mother pushed past him. “We can share the profits with him. He makes the money. And you don’t have to go look for work in the bars and the night clubs like before.”
“Do you know how much money you owe him?” Chuck asked.
“Mucho,” said Mirabella as she left the house, her shoulders slumped and her gait slow. Pedro called out to her to bring back some food when she returns and she waved her hand without turning to look at him as she boarded the bus.
“This is no good,” Pedro said to Chuck, as the sound of the bus pulling away faded into the chirping of the birds and the rustle of the wind. “We have one more day of work to fix the roof. On Monday, we go to the hotel and tell Mr. Casteneda we can share the profits from the store. We need the money. He need the money. I don’t see why he would say no. He takes mi mami back. Everyone is happy.”
“I hope so,” Chuck said, taking a last look at the scenery.
He exhaled and slid his legs off the table.
“I’d like to get a haircut and a shave,” he said. “Then, I’d like you to introduce me to Riko Grande. I want to help build the tunnel and then slip through to the United States. It’s time for me to go home.”
Emily’s nerves ran haywire as Britney pulled the car into the driveway, right around lunchtime. Stephanie hadn’t called. Instead she texted that they needed to have a long talk when she returned. Emily’s nerves eased when she realized the Ford Explorer was missing. Her sisters exited the car and crossed the yard to the front door. Emily lingered in the yard as her phone buzzed and her mother’s name crossed the screen.
“Out at a working lunch with Mr. Beckman,” she texted. “We’ll speak when I get back.”
Stephanie moved her chicken salad back and forth across her plate as Rupert stepped aside to take a call from the Senator’s office. Returning to the table, he exuded the energy that Stephanie lacked.
“They tracked him down to a trailer along a river in El Cenizo,” Rupert explained. “They didn’t call the feds. She sent her own team to investigate. She wanted to know what other information he had and how many people he had it on before she turned him over.”
Stephanie feigned a smile and tacit interest, which Rupert failed to read.
“They found him dead at his kitchen table,” Rupert continued. “He looked emaciated and sickly. The place smelled. It was a bad scene.”
“Will it help the case?” Stephanie asked.
“It still might,” Rupert said. “She confiscated his computers. Apparently, he had a hard-core tech lab in the back room of his trailer. We’re going to have to make the case that Chuck’s efforts helped lead to his capture.”
“Chuck’s non-existent efforts?” Stephanie clanked her fork against the plate. “He didn’t do anything. He didn’t lift a finger. He never answered me about using the GPS records on his phone. He hasn’t done a damn bit to help himself or us. Why am I even doing all this?”
Rupert stiffened and also rested his fork on his plate.
“Look,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on with you and your husband. But you and I both know you’re doing this for those three beautiful, smart, loving girls that you have at your house. You know they need their father. They need to know their world’s not falling apart. You’re doing it because you’re a mom; a great mom, who loves her family more than anything in the world. You’re doing it because you’re a good person.”
Stephanie folded her hands in her lap and looked into Rupert’s eyes.
“Thanks,” she moved her lips in what might be construed as a smile. “But, without Chico as wild card, what do we have left?”
“Well,” Rupert paused before moving ahead with his next thought. “Let’s find out more from Emily about what the ALIAS agent told her. I don’t condone anything illegal. But I don’t see any harm in taking their follow-up meeting.”
“I was thinking the same,” Stephanie said. “Jennifer told me they could eliminate the DNA and finger print records of Charles Domo, opening the door to the annulment plan.”
Rupert squirmed in his seat and leaned back, away from Stephanie. She felt a strange new wall erect between them.
“I know,” she acknowledged his discomfort. “Nothing illegal. At least, nothing that you need to know about.”
“That’s not the issue,” Rupert said. “We have full attorney client privilege.”
“Oh right,” said Stephanie.
“But that takes me to the real reason why I wanted to meet you for lunch,” he said.
Stephanie swallowed a chunk of her salad and looked at him quizzically.
“Do you really want to move forward with this plan?” he asked. “I’m going through a divorce right now. It’s grueling and awful. It wears you down and batters your ego. It changes you in ways you might not understand.”
“But we wouldn’t be getting divorced,” Stephanie said. “It would be an annulment. Chuck would cease to exist. We’d pretend to meet, date for a couple months. Take lots of pictures and then apply for a green card based on the new relationship with Carlos Dominguez. We discussed this.”
“I know,” said Rupert. “I just don’t want you to jump into something you don’t totally understand.”
Stephanie searched his eyes to understand his inner turmoil.
“I changed so much through this process with my soon to be ex-wife,” he said. “I’d hate to think I was biased by pushing you in a direction that might not be best for you.”
“Biased?” Stephanie asked. “How could you be biased? You’re just doing your best to be a good lawyer and presenting me with every possible option you can.”
“Maybe,” he said, looking almost past her. “I hope so.”
“I don’t understand,” Stephanie continued. “What are you saying? Where’s this coming from? Why’re you having doubts now?”
“I’ll take the meeting with you and the agent from ALIAS,” Rupert said, looking her in the eyes with renewed focus. “We’ll get you representation from ALIAS Legal and I’ll recuse myself. I’ve taken this as far as I can; as far as I should.”
“What’re you talking about?” Stephanie allowed her annoyance to slip into her tone. “It’s me, Rupert. Talk to me. What’s going on?”
“I don’t feel right about this.”
“About what? The annulment?”
“Any of it.”
“Any of what?”
“It’s my feelings,” he said, breaking the rapid exchange. “I’m developing feelings; feelings that I can’t have. I know it’s only been a couple weeks. Maybe I’m just feeling vulnerable.”
“What feelings?” Stephanie asked, her face turning red with the dawning understanding of his profession.
“I’m experiencing feelings,” he repeated. “And, I can’t represent you because I’m developing these feelings for you.”