Criminal or Victim?

***Federal Detention Center, Houston***

J. T. studied the woman on the other side of the glass. Of course, Esmerelda knew someone was watching her. The woman knew a lot more about them and the process than they knew about her. Esmerelda. That was it. One word. Sure, they knew that she had been the ‘madame’ of Diego Garcia’s higher-end whore house in Torreon and the man’s occasional lover.

They had found close to two dozen women and girls housed there. Most of them underage, the youngest twelve. That was younger than Jeb. A couple like Bebe LaToya Mae Jefferson had been kidnapped. But most were either runaways or had been sold to Garcia by their families. The very thought made him sick to his stomach.

What they did know was that this woman was responsible for those girls once they arrived. Like some sick den mother at a summer camp. She kept them clothed, feed, and made sure the place was clean. She also pimped out their bodies and kept them drugged most of the time. They had found six bodies buried behind the ground floor cantina that was the cover for the prostitution. Forensics was still working on identifying them and determining the cause of death.

The question was – what was the extent of this woman’s role? And more importantly, was she Garcia’s co-conspirator or as she claimed another of his victims? Though she refused to provide details, the woman claimed to have been sold to the cartel when she was thirteen. But even if her story was true, and J. T. had no corroborating evidence that it was, did that negate her culpability in the other crimes?

“Fuck,” had become his new favorite word. There was something totally liberating about saying it. And sometimes, like now, there was just no other word that would do. This situation was definitely fuck-worthy.

Moments like this reminded him of his legal ethics course. The professor opened the first class with the statement, “The law is rarely just and never fair.” Until recently, J. T. had never understood why Jaycee, who struggled through ambiguity with every case they studied, had gotten an  ‘A’ while it had been his only ‘B.’ Other than that gym class in junior high, which was how he ended up in military school with Steve.

At least since the morning, he had first heard that girl’s name, life and the law had thrown him one curveball after another. He was struggling right now, as Jaycee had in that class, with the most challenging issue of them all – what was the right thing?

But he wouldn’t get those answers on this side of the glass. There was every possibility he wouldn’t find them with the woman either. But it was the best place to start. J. T. adjusted his Betterwill tie and stepped through the door.

The woman looked up, and J. T. almost stumbled over his own feet. The deep burnished red dye was growing out to reveal dark hair laced with silver. The woman had been svelte when they arrested her. Now she was practically emaciated. The subtle lines around her eyes, mouth, and forehead deepened. He had thought the woman younger than his four decades. Now he wasn’t sure.

But it was those dark eyes that pierced him. He wasn’t sure if those were dark circles from lack of sleep or fading black eyes. There was something almost familiar about those yes. But he could not place them.

“I want a lawyer.” The woman’s English was as perfect as her Spanish. That was another thing they were uncertain of – her nationality. The girls in that place had been from all over – Mexico, South and Central America, as well as the US. This woman’s nationality might be a central question in the case. If she were Mexican or from somewhere else, then the issue of jurisdiction was even murkier. He had already fought his Mexican counterparts over Diego Garcia.

“You’ve been offered three. And you turned them all down. Perhaps you would be more comfortable with someone from the Mexican embassy?”

“I didn’t like any of them. And I’m not Mexican.” The woman picked at her nails. They looked a bloody mess, far from the perfect french manicure they had been when she was arrested.

He pulled out a chair opposite her and sat down, “That’s a start, at least. Are you American?”

She laughed, more like cackled. It reminded J. T. of the witches in Macbeth. “I’m nothing and no one. I haven’t been in so long that I barely remember.”

“Your name. Your real name. The one on your birth certificate.”

That laugh echoed off the walls again, “That’s funny. You think I have one of those?”

“All children born in this country….”

“There, you would be wrong, fancy attorney man.”

He shook his head. Was this woman insane like Diego Garcia? Indeed, nothing she said made any sense. “I don’t see how that’s possible. But if you tell me your story, I can have my people check it out.”

“Like I said, I want a lawyer.”

“You have been….”

“Jaycee Riley. She’s the one I want. I told the others that, but they wouldn’t listen.”

J. T. knew that his face mirrored the shock he was feeling. That didn’t happen often. It wasn’t just his legal trainer either. Living a lie your whole life made hiding your emotions easy. But this woman had caught him with his guard down. He should have brought some papers. That always gave him something to do in moments like this.

As it was, he could only study his hands until he felt in control enough to look up and ask, “Why her? How do you know Jaycee?”

“I’m not telling you that either, Mr. Prosecutor. She’s the only one that I’ll talk to.”

Did this woman know that he knew Jaycee? Did she know of Jaycee’s new husband? She called her Riley. Perhaps the connection was through Sean Riley? But considering Rex Ranger’s involvement in the mess in Torreon, was there a conflict of interest? He couldn’t share any of that with the woman, though.

“I’m sorry, Jaycee is not on our public defenders’ list. And even if she were, she’s not available right now.” That simple and the truth. “I can get you….”

“Jaycee Riley. Or I’m not talking. And if I don’t talk….”

They were back to an impasse. A stalemate. And J. T. had wasted most of his morning. Before he could regroup, the woman turned to the guard, “Take me back to my cell. We’re done here.” She turned back to face him with those oddly familiar eyes, “Don’t bother coming back or sending anyone else. Jaycee Riley is the only one I’ll talk to.”

He watched her go, still trying to figure out what it was with her eyes. Yeah, that had been an absolute waste of the morning.

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