***Mitch Taylor’s office, downtown Houston, TX***
J. T. could not remember the last time he was this nervous. Perhaps his first debate in junior high? But no case, not even the high-profile ones that had built his reputation, made his heart pound this fast and loud or his palms sweat this much. He was ten minutes early. Actually, he had been half an hour early but forced himself to stop for a coffee in the chain shop just around the corner.
Was it how much that road on this meeting? Or that Mitch Taylor had called it? J. T. liked the man who had been his mother’s attorney his whole life. But Mitch was his mother’s attorney. He might try to rein her nastiness in a bit, but he always did what his client wanted in the end. And why so suddenly? Was Taylor trying to catch them off guard? He had received the email requesting the meeting after five just yesterday. J. T. had considered rejecting the offer, but he had acceded after a conference call with Laura and Jaycee.
If Mitch thought to catch them unaware, he was going to be surprised. Both of his attorneys would be in attendance. Laura was driving down from Sebida, and Jaycee insisted on being teleconferenced in. After all, besides J. T. himself, Jaycee had the most experience going up against the man. He just hoped for the same win-win outcome she’d had the last time she went up against Mitch.
He hated waiting. It was not something J. T. was accustomed to. Usually, he was the one making others wait. Laura was not here yet. He knew that childcare for her daughter was proving more problematic than she had expected, with her mother moving to some hippie commune in Arizona and her baby sister away on her honeymoon. Hell, Laura should be on hers too. She had been married less than a week. But the shit show that he had dumped her husband into, combined with a new baby, had delayed such things for a bit.
J. T.’s tendency was to pace when he got this nervous, but that would not do. It would show too much weakness. Maybe he should have waited for Laura at the coffee shop or in the lobby. But his other tendency was to take charge of things; it had gotten him where he was now. This was the most important case of his life. It wasn’t just his future that road on today’s meeting but his children’s. Especially Jeb’s. He had made promises to the boy, and he intended on keeping them.
The dark wood door opened, and Laura walked in with a smile. If she was worried or frazzled, she didn’t show it. “Hey, J. T. You ready?” He nodded as she walked over to the reception desk and announced their presence.
The receptionist called someone, probably another admin, and they were ushered quickly to a conference room. It was pretty much the same as the dozens of others he had been in over the past almost two decades. A large oval table with eight or so chairs around it. Though the chairs were nicer than most he had been in, especially in federal courthouses. Real leather? Ergonomic? The receptionist pushed a button on the large monitor that hung on the far wall, and a gray screen appeared.
Laura took a seat towards the head of the table closest to the door. A position that indicated their willingness to walk away if necessary. She busied herself on the tablet she pulled from her bag. A moment later, Jaycee’s face replaced the gray.
“Do you have any idea why the suddenness of this meeting?” Leave it to Jaycee to cut right to the chase. It reminded him why they had once been good friends. And filled him with regret at all the things he had forsaken in pursuit of someone else’s dream.
“None. I haven’t heard anything from Mitch, my mother, or Priscilla since the meeting with the social workers last week. I was hoping one of you could tell me. I take it Mitch hasn’t been in contact with you either?”
She shook her head as the door opened and Mitchell Taylor entered. Alone. That was unusual. Where were his associates? Or at least a paralegal to take notes? The older man took the chair at the end of the table. But that power positioning was to be expected. If they had wanted to assert more neutrality, they would have negotiated for a location other than his offices. Besides, they sort of had the man outnumbered.
Mitch nodded his head to the woman on the screen, “Always a pleasure to see you again, Jaycee. How’s that family of yours doing?” But something was off with the man. J. T. noticed that the lines around Mitch’s mouth seemed more prominent. Even his usually ‘good ole boy’ stance seemed tenser.
After a moment of pleasantries, he turned and held out his hand, “J. T.” His grip was firm, the same as always. Whatever he might think of this situation personally, J. T. trusted it would not affect his professionalism in handling the case.
Mitch turned towards Laura and held out his hand, “Hello, again, Ms. Reynolds.”
“Ms. Reynolds-Ranger now. But how about we cut the formal bullshit since we’re not in a courtroom. Laura will do fine, Mitch.”
J. T. smiled at the subtle way she took control and evened the playing field in a man’s world. He could tell that it threw Mitch just the tiniest bit. There had probably been only a handful of women attorneys in Taylor’s class at law school. But Mitch recovered quickly with a nod as he sat down.
“I’m sorry for the sudden nature of this meeting, but there have been some developments….”
J. T. could never once remember seeing this man so flustered. “Cut to the chase, Mitch. What is it?”
Mitch stared at his hands, folded on the table in front of him, as he spoke, “Priscilla and the children were involved in a car accident yesterday afternoon….”
“My children! Are George and Laura alright?”
The man looked up as he nodded his head, “Yes, they were taken to the hospital and checked out thoroughly. Other than a couple of bruises, there were no injuries to those in the car.”
“What aren’t you telling us, Mitch?” It was Jaycee who spoke from the screen.
“A pedestrian was seriously injured.” He turned to face J. T., “Your wife was arrested for DWI. The accident occurred near George’s school. She was picking him up and lost control of the car. It appears she was arguing with the children and not paying attention to the road. Another mother was walking….”
“Oh, my god….” Laura’s face was visible white, her hands covered her mouth. J. T. imagined his reaction was even more profound. Some of the responsibility rested on his shoulders. He should have gotten his wife help long ago.
“The accident happened before school let out. Only the woman was injured.”
“Will she survive?” J. T. barely managed to choke the words out.
Mitch sighed, “We hope so. But her recovery will be extensive. And of course, I don’t have to tell you all the ramifications of this….”
“Was social services made aware of the situation?” This voice came from the monitor again. Jaycee obviously had enough presence to press their advantage.
“Yes, Ms. Miller came to the hospital herself. She wanted to place the children in foster care. I convinced her to leave them in the hospital overnight for observation and allow the family to negotiate a safe placement for them in the meantime.”
“I’m their father….”
Mitch nodded his head, “Yes, obviously, and no one denies your parental rights, J. T. But George is having some behavior issues at the moment as well. That was why Priscilla was distracted. She had been called to the school because your son was in a fight with another child.”
“Why wasn’t our client made aware of any of this before now?” Laura spoke up.
“The sudden nature of….”
“Bull shit, Mitchell. By my calculations, the accident occurred at least sixteen hours ago. Even if there wasn’t time for the school to notify J. T. And they should have. Both parents should have been involved in any decisions regarding education or welfare. But that aside…for now. You’ve had plenty of time to contact us. And certainly, social services was under an obligation to do so.”
The man’s shoulders slumped, “Jaycee, I’m gonna cut to the chase here. I’ve been fucking fighting fires since two-thirty yesterday. The family of the little boy or girl, I don’t know about this stuff. But the child George was involved in the altercation with is demanding that an eight-year-old be arrested for assault for a playground fight.”
“Let me bring you into the twenty-first century. Bullying, especially involving race, gender, or sexuality, is not some playground fight. It’s a crime. A serious one. Potentially, a hate crime,” Laura’s voice held barely contained anger.
“You should know better by now, Mitch, my friend. Didn’t the Marshall case teach you anything?” Jaycee smiled on the screen.
“Evidently, not enough. I’m sorry if I offended anyone. I did not mean to. But putting an eight-year-old child in hang cuffs and dragging him from school, I don’t see what good could come of that….”
“Because the next time a bully wants to target someone because of their differences, they’ll fucking think twice; that’s why.”
Mitch nodded at Laura but turned to J. T. as he continued, “Of course, your mother is making sure the victim of the accident receives the best of care.”
“DWI is no accident, and you know that. My wife chose to drive when she knew that she had been drinking. She chose to put my children’s lives and others at risk. There is no excuse for that. Where is Priscilla now?”
“She was booked late last night. We arranged for her to be released on bail. Your mother has secured a placement for your wife at a private rehab center. That program lasts ninety days.”
“I’ll move back in….”
Mitch shook his head, “George has told Ms. Miller that he’d rather be placed in foster care than….”
“Than what, Mitch? What crap has my eight-year-old son been repeating? Because we know he’s just mimicking what he hears my wife and mother say.”
“That he would rather go into foster care than be abused by some queer.”
“I have never….”
Mitch held out his hands, “I believe you, J. T. And I’m sorry. But obviously….”
“When our client is cleared of the allegations, and we all know he will be, you can be assured that they will become part of the divorce proceedings,” J. T. recognized that his friend was as upset as he was.
“Is there any way to keep these children out of foster care?” Laura had recovered.
“As you all know, social services always try to place children with family if possible. But your sister is due any day now. And John is still recovering from his surgery. Besides, DFPS doesn’t like to place them out of state.”
Mitch looked down at his hands for a long moment before meeting J. T.’s gaze, “Your mother has offered to move into the family home and care for George and Laura. Ms. Miller thoroughly interviewed Jeb. So she is confident that he is best left with you.”
He sighed and stared at the table again, “The woman is well aware that George’s allegations are almost certainly fabricated.”
“No way. Why leave the children with my mother so she can fill my son’s mind with more lies?”
“No, J. T., I promise you Marianne had nothing to do with that.” The following heavy sigh told J. T. how difficult the man’s admission was, “This situation has taken its toll on your mother’s health. The doctors at the hospital had to treat her last night for high blood pressure.”
“If that’s the case, how do you think an unwell, mature woman can care for two children? One of them a toddler.” Laura asked.
“Your mother is prepared to hire a live-in nanny to care for the children. Her role would be primarily to supervise their care while your wife receives the care she requires.”
“She doesn’t need to. They had an excellent carer. Before my mother and wife fired her.”
Mitch began to shake his head, but as much as J. T. wanted to give his children, especially Laura, the stability of remaining in their home, he was not willing to just roll over on this one. “That’s my condition, Mitch. Josefina has been caring for those children their whole lives. I trust her.”
“And I’m sure that Ms. Miller would be more comfortable knowing that a child as young as Laura will have the continuity of care and stability that the woman offers,” the glint in Jaycee’s eyes said that she knew they had won even before the man spoke.
“Alright, I’ll speak with your mother, convince her that this is in everyone’s best interest.”
“I’ll call Josefina and arrange for her to move back in this afternoon. Is there anything else?”
The older man seemed to sink into the chair, “I’m sorry about this, J. T. But all visits with the children must be supervised until….”
He had been prepared for this. As Laura had told him from the beginning, he might face Sophie’s choices, decisions where he had to place the welfare of one child over the others. But it still hurt. Knowing that his every interaction with his children would be watched and evaluated. Worse still that his son had been used as a pawn in these games. Because he refused to believe a child capable of such…. Hate.
But this was on him. If he had been a better, more involved parent…. If he had insisted Priscilla get the help she needed…. If…. If…. If…. A lifetime of lies and regrets. He could not change that, though. All he could do now was what was best for his children. All of them. Because none of this was their fault.
“Make it happen, Mitch. And make damned sure my mother knows I won’t tolerate her attitude towards Josefina. That woman has raised those children more than their mother or I have. And I expect the trust to pay her salary.”
“She’ll have a raise, you have my word, J. T. Now if ya’ll will excuse me, I have…. Hell, I don’t even know all the shit I have to deal with….”
“And that’s why you get paid the big bucks, Mitch,” Jaycee laughed.
“It ain’t enough for this….”
“Amen to that,” Laura expressed what all of them felt to one degree or another as the man stood and left the room.
As the door closed behind him, J. T. felt the warm hand wrap around his, “Are you okay, J. T.?”
“Well, as alright as you can be with all this shit?” His friend added.
“No, not really. How can I be? I appreciate you asking, though. I should have negotiated for a counseling allowance from the trust. I can’t expect Caitlin Danvers-Logan to keep giving away the kind of time my screwed-up head requires.”
“I’ll email Mitch about it. Because as tough as things are right now, J. T. Our hand in this divorce just got much stronger. I know that’s hard to hear considering the costs to your life, those children, and….”
“Innocent people?” He dropped his head into his hands and battled the tears. One of his first memories of his mother was the words, ‘big boys don’t cry.’ Perhaps that was the first of her lies that he had bought. All of the others just seemed to flow easily from that. “Maybe it’s best if I go ahead and quit my job now….”
And he would give that some more serious thought, but it triggered another idea. He looked back to the screen where Jaycee was now nursing her son, “Do you know Esmerelda?”
She scrunched her face and shook her head, “Esmerelda who? I don’t think I know anyone by that name….”
“The madame of Garcia’s operation in Torreon where we found all those girls. The thing is, we don’t know her real name; she won’t tell us that. Or anything else. She’s refused every court-appointed attorney we’ve offered her. I even tried to speak to her myself, but she won’t talk to anyone. Except you.”
“Me? I don’t understand. Like I said, I don’t think I know anyone by that name. And I’m not even on the public defenders’ rooster. So I don’t know how she got my name. Maybe Rex said something; I’ll ask him later.”
“I don’t know. Nothing she says makes any sense to me. She claims to be a victim herself. That she was sold to the cartel when she was thirteen, but she won’t give us her real name or any details so we can verify her story. She insists that you’re the only one she’ll talk to. And without her cooperation…. I just wanted to tie up loose ends on that case before I quit, but maybe now all that is a moot point anyway.”
“I thought Garcia was too mentally unstable to stand trial?” The way Laura shifted in her chair reminded J. T. that the man was her half-brother. Perhaps he should not say anything more though attorney-client privilege should apply.
“He probably won’t ever be, but there are still a few things I’d like to tie up. We still haven’t located our former fiancée Stewart Childress or the other Garcia brother. Besides doing the fair thing with the woman, I was hoping she might have some information that would lead me to them.”
“I’m not making any promises, J. T. But I can at least talk to the woman. If I can convince my overprotective husband to drive me to Houston, that is.”
“Thanks, Jaycee. I should get going. I need to call Josefina before I head back to the office. The way things are going, I’ll use up all my vacation and leave time before I even quit.”
“Why do you think we have our own practice, J. T.?”
He laughed, “The joys of dealing with the fucking mess that my life has become? No, but seriously, thank you both. You’ve been so much more than just my attorneys.”
“That’s because we’re your friends first, J. T. And when the shit hits the fan like this, that’s what we all need most.”
Jaycee smiled when Laura added, “Especially with a family like yours. Makes me glad to just be trailer trash.”
“Yeah, I thought it was hard growing up in foster care. But if my mother was anything like yours….”
“Then, I guess it is up to me to be a better parent than the formidable Marianne Buford Walker Tyler. I haven’t done too well so far. But I’m committed to doing better from here on out.” And that was the truth.