Laura leaned on Ryan’s arm as they had made their way to the dining room for breakfast. It was frustratingly slow for her. The only solace was how adorable he looked wearing a sleeping Chloe on that chest.
Overall, she felt surprisingly good. He had left her to sleep a couple more hours, then helped her to nurse the baby, and get dressed. Oh, and pee, she could not forget that, with a smile at their unique team-building exercises.
“Okay, what has you smiling, sweetheart?” he teased.
“Team-building exercises, counselor.”
His laughter was deep and rich like it came not just from his belly but his soul. He had chuckled, and teased, and perhaps laughed once or twice, but not like this. He was devastatingly handsome when he did. The way those tiny lines around his eyes crinkled was adorable. Laura knew that it was sound she wanted to hear over and over again.
But when they stepped into the dining room with its rough-hewn table and benches that had almost certainly been handcrafted, Laura was completely bowled over. Not only was there a mountain of delicious smelling food, especially that massive platter of crisp bacon that had her name on it, biscuits, gravy, and was that grits?
What astounded and reassured her most was the whiteboard that leaned on an easel with an array of colored pens. Laura felt like she had stepped back into a board room after almost a year, and damn did that feel good.
Rex brought in a platter of scrambled eggs, “Good morning. Hope you slept well? And sorry, but Jaycee insisted I bring that in from her office. She says it’s how she thinks best,” he nodded towards the board.
“No apologies necessary. I love it,” Laura smiled at the man.
His wife appeared from the kitchen, “See, I told you.” The other woman smiled at her. Laura had never had many women friends, other than her sisters, not since high school anyway.
She might have never survived her first year had it not been for Miss Esther’s English class and an older girl. Jolene Monroe had been a senior, and despite coming from the most influential family in town, she had been just as poor and outcast as the Reynolds. Thanks to the acrimonious divorce of her parents, and her deadbeat dad, who rarely paid child support, even though the held himself out as a pillar of the community, coaching tiny league sports and running for the school board.
Jo had been the one who planted the seed in her mind that the law was her ticket out of Sebida and poverty. The girl had gone even further than she had. Though she had not heard from her in a couple of years, what could you expect from a woman living her LA dream as a partner in a prestigious firm?
This woman reminded her of Jo. And herself. Perhaps given time, and if they were stuck here, there should be plenty of that, they could become friends. Especially since her husband was Ryan’s cousin.
Jack dragged himself down the hall. He looked a bit rough, like he had not slept well, or was hungover. But the sight of food worked its magic on him, just as it always had when he was a little boy. He reached for one of the biscuits and bit into it with a loud moan.
“My sons, it has been too long since we were together like this,” the old man and little girl joined them around the table.
Laura reached for the bacon, but Ryan shook his head as Grandfather lifted his arthritic hands. “We thank the Great Spirit for the resources that made this food possible. We thank the Earth Mother for producing it, and we thank all those who labored to bring it to us. May the wholesomeness of the food before us, bring out the wholeness of the Spirit within us.”
Praying for anything was a foreign concept to her. Her only experience with prayer or religions of any kind was the couple of times she and her sisters had gone to vacation bible school at the Baptist church. But they had gone for the free lunch and fun crafts, not some god that obviously didn’t give a damn about them. But whatever.
She reached for the bacon again as Jaycee filled her daughter’s plate, and the three men seemed to fight over each dish. Whatever it was about him, the way the old man sat smiling at the head of the table brought some odd sense of calm to the whole thing.
Once plates were piled high, and the men were busy devouring a delicious Southern breakfast, Jaycee turned to her. “I thought we could use the whiteboard to map out the things we know…and what we don’t. If you’re okay with it, my office number can manage conference calls. Or we could try one of the apps on our mobiles if you have them?”
Laura finished chewing the last bite of bacon, “Your office line should be fine.” It seemed strange allowing this woman that she barely knew to take control of something so critical to her. But perhaps that was the point; she was too close to the situation. Maybe even Ryan was.
“Let me just take Angel and get her set up on the computer with her schoolwork. Here’s the number, why don’t you text everyone with it? Have them call in about ten minutes?” The woman reached over and squeezed her hand.
“Angel, if you’re finished, let’s start on your schoolwork?” Jaycee addressed her daughter.
But Grandfather shook his head, “No, my daughter, let the child stay. Her gifts grow more every day. Perhaps they can be of some use.”
“With all respect, I don’t think that the things we’re going to be discussing are appropriate for a seven-year-old, Grandfather.”
The man laughed, “Jaycee, in most of this world, Angel would be caring for her siblings, cleaning, working in the fields, or carrying water for miles. That may seem harsh. But let me challenge you. Does our distinctly privileged Western illusion of a perfect childhood truly serve them well? Does it prepare the next generation for the realities of this life?”
The man’s words struck a deep chord in Laura. When she had decided to have a baby, she had all those dreams of how much better and easier a life she would provide than the one she had. But wasn’t this man, right? Hadn’t the very responsibility and work ethic that their poverty had forced on her, given her a distinct advantage over most of her peers for whom the whole adulting thing was relatively new?
Well, other than the likes of Stephen McBride and Stewart, who had been born to wealth and privilege, for whom everything was just given and taken for granted. But then too was that also part of this mess? Had that privilege impaired the man’s decision-making process?
The old man looked at her and smiled. “All very valid observations, my daughter. I hope that you will reflect upon them.”
She threw up her hands, “Okay, that shit is just freaky. Doesn’t it bother any of the rest of you?”
Everyone laughed, and it broke the tension. Jaycee spoke again, “You will get used to it. But yes, it freaked me out at first, too. I would offer to teach you some mental blocking exercises, except I often wonder if they work with Grandfather.”
The man picked up his cup of coffee with a smile, neither confirming nor denying her words. The woman sighed and met his gaze, “Alright. For now. But if I think things are too… Rex will take her from the room.”
He nodded his head, “Then let us fill your board with truths, my daughter.”
Laura sent a group text to Merry J. Austen, Marmee Wilder, and Mary March with the number as the men began to clear the table of mostly empty dishes. It was a bit after eight, so she could only hope that they were all awake.
The phone rang, and Jaycee answered, “J. Ranger, Esquire, how may I help you?”
There was silence for a moment. “Who is this? My sister sent me this number.”
Laura smiled and answered for the woman, “Elena, it’s me. It’s a long story…”
But before she could continue, the phone rang again. “Hold on a moment. Let me answer. We’re hoping to have a conference call with everyone.” Jaycee did not wait for a response before answering the other line on the third ring.
“Baby girl, is everything alright? Whose number is this?” Her Mama did not even allow Jaycee to say anything before jumping in.
“Everything is fine, Mama. I’ll explain in a minute. We’re trying to get everyone together on a conference call,” Laura explained.
“Okay, have you heard from Mercy?”
“Not yet, Mama, but we have Elena on the other line. Give Jaycee a moment, and she’ll connect us all.” Jaycee smiled and nodded.
“Hello?” Elena’s voice came back on the line.
Laura heard her Mama gasp, and she could almost picture her with her hands over her face, trying to fight back the tears. Mama never cried, at least not around them, but there were times that she knew it was by sheer will power.
She fought her own tears as she thought again what a great CEO the woman would have made, but the decks were stacked against her Mama from birth. Still, the woman had performed miracles, making sure that her girls had choices she never did.
Damn straight, the old man was right. She’d have to rethink this parenting shit. Protecting Chloe from everything the way she had hoped might not be in her daughter’s best interest. Damn it, when she looked up, why did the man have that knowing smile on his face?
“Mama, you still there?” She would have time later to ponder all that. For now, they had other business to attend to.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Where is here? How far did you get? Did you have any trouble?”
Ryan patted his daughter’s back as she fidgeted a bit in the baby sling. He liked the damn thing. It gave him a chance to connect with Chloe is a unique way. He could almost empathize with what it must have been like for Laura to be pregnant. Though, obviously, it was not the same. If Laura didn’t have one of these things back home, he’d have to buy one.
She shone, Laura actually glowed. He’d never gotten to see the woman in action. Not in the corporate world. Not as an attorney. But damned was she good at taking charge. He had listened to most of what they said as Jaycee used her colored pens to begin drawing on the whiteboard.
Any man who didn’t think women were just as capable, well, he’d love to see him after those two were through with him. He knew that some men would feel uncomfortable in his position, but he had no problem either being the primary carer for his child or following his woman’s brilliant lead. He knew his skills, and he’d use them… when they were needed. But they weren’t now. Those two had things more than under control.
He could see that one thing was bothering Laura – they had been on the call for over half an hour, trying to piece everything together, and still no Mercy. He knew Will; he trusted the man, but it was beginning to make even him uncomfortable. Where were they?
“Well, I guess that’s about…”
Before Jaycee could finish, the phone rang again. “Ya’ll hold the line, okay? Let me just answer that.”
Ryan felt the tension. It was almost nine, that call could be anyone looking to hire Jaycee’s legal services. There were no guarantees.
“J. Ranger, Esquire. How may I help you?”
“I’m sorry, I think I have the wrong number…”
“No, Mercy. It’s me, Laura. Where are you?”
“Wait a minute. Let’s get everyone back on the line before you answer that one. And it’s nice to finally hear from you, Mercy. I’m Ryan’s cousin-in-law would be the best description, I suppose. We had you all call my office number so we could conference call. Just let me get your mother and sister back, okay.”
A moment later, Stacey Reynold’s almost distraught voice came through the phone, “Was it her? Was it Mercy?”
“Yes, Mama, it’s me.”
“Damn you, girl, where have you been?”
“I’m sorry, Mama, I was a bit… indisposed.” Mercy seemed to stammer over her words.
Ryan’s respect for Jaycee’s skills increased as she intervened. “Mercy, we’ll get you up to speed on what we know in a moment. Where are you? Not specifics. It’s best if none of us knows those about the others’ positions. That way, if something did happen, we could not share the information. I hope you understand.”
“We’re in South Texas. Like I told Mama yesterday, we’re heading for the border and Torreon.”
“Torreon? No, Mercy, please don’t go there.”
Ryan had considered their middle sister Elena as… Well, it might not be polite to say it, but weak. Not at all the feisty type like her mother and sisters. But the tone of her voice then made him reconsider that.
“Like I told Mama last night, Elena, not only will they have to go through the whole extradition process to bring me back, but something Kerr said yesterday…”
“What did Sherriff Kerr say exactly? Think very carefully. Word for word if you can,” Jaycee was damned good at coaching her witnesses, too.
“Kerr came directly to the library, probably while Mama was still with you, Elena. He said he had been to Laura’s house, and there was no one there.”
“Okay, so if Kerr moved that quickly, it means either Stephens used the Patriot Act and did not go through the warrant process. Or…” Ryan spoke for the first time. But he did not like the alternative, “Or whoever the leak is got to him first.”
“And he was sent to clean up loose ends,” Jack added.
“Well, Will says he knows who the leak is.”
“Will? Is he there with you now?” Ryan asked.
“Hold that thought, Ryan,” Jaycee interrupted. “If we could stick with Mercy’s story first, please. What else did Kerr say?”
“Of course, I’m sorry. You’re absolutely right,” Ryan knew the importance of keeping the witness focused during questioning. It probably was a good thing that Rex’s wife was taking the lead on this one. Both he and Laura were much too close to this one. And he knew…that could be deadly.
“He tried to arrest me. Some material witness bullshit, can he do that? I mean, I’m not the one that worked for McBride. Sorry, sis.”
“He should not have. That’s what worries me, Mercy. And why we hadn’t planned for it. Sure, we all expected me to be questioned again at some point. Certainly, since Stephen’s suicide. But they should not be able to use my family against me.”
Ryan squeezed Laura’s hand. It was all he could do. He knew she felt guilty, but as she said, there was no reason to expect this.
“Since when has that bastard ever played by the rules. I taught you, girls…”
He could hear both the vitriol and worry in Stacey’s voice, but there was more than just that. Panic? Fear? Was there something that she was not sharing with them?
Jaycee’s eyes sought Rex’s across the table, but Angel did not even appear to be listening to any of it. Perhaps this time, Grandfather had been wrong? Maybe these were just much too adult issues to even register with the child? But both his cousin and Grandfather shook their heads.
It did not matter for whatever reason his future mother-in-law stopped her tirade without explanation or interruption.
“Yes, Mama, I know. Which may be why I pulled my gun on the man.” A heavy sigh filled the silence, “But that only made him madder. Kerr said that he would make me regret doing it. That he would send me so far down the hole that no one could ever find me.”
There was another long silence, but Jaycee was remarkable at her job. “Were those his exact words, Mercy? What else did he say?”
“Yeah, those were his exact words. He said…” There was a low sob on the line, “I’m sorry I can’t. I can’t repeat what he said.”
“I understand, Mercy. But it would help to know everything you remember. Could you text it to your sister when we’re finished here?”
“Yeah, yeah, I think I can do that,” her voice was still trembling, and Ryan could hear sobbing from somewhere. Whether it was Stacey or Elena, he could not tell, but even Laura was incredibly tense. He had not let her hand go, so he gave it another reassuring squeeze.
“Anyway, Kerr said that he would send me to Mexico. To Torreon. That they’d sell me…”
Jaycee gave his cousin a more stern look this time. “Angel, why don’t you let your dad take you out to see your pony?”
Her daughter shook her head as she continued to draw. “No, Mommy, the girl wants me to stay.”
“What girl, Angel?” Grandfather asked with the patience that had marked this man in Ryan’s mind from the moment he met Raymond Greywolf.
“The girl that talked to me in my dreams.” She passed the paper to the old man, “This girl.”
“She’s very pretty, Angel. How long has she been talking in your dreams?”
The little girl looked at them, though Ryan felt that was not quite right. She looked through them, or perhaps inside of them. “Just last night. Since they came.”
“And what did the girl say?”
“I don’t know. It makes no sense, Grandfather.”
“What makes no sense, my child? As your Mommy told the other lady, we need to know exactly what she said, Angel.” The old man reached across the table and put a reassuring hand on the child. Ryan could see Rex’s step-daughter had become his latest ‘project,’ just as his cousin, he, and Jack had once been.
Her curls danced as she nodded, “It’s so noisy there. And I can’t understand what the other people are saying.”
“What other people?” This time it was his cousin who spoke as he wrapped his arm around the chair where his step-daughter sat. Though that was inaccurate, Ryan knew that Rex loved that little girl every bit as much as he loved the baby that his wife carried or as Ryan did Chloe.
Angel looked up at her daddy, “I can’t see them. But I know they are they. And they speak funny. Sort of like Lupe sometimes does, but it is so fast I can’t understand the words.”
“Good girl,” Rex smiled at his daughter.
“You said the girl spoke to you. Did you understand what she said, sweetie?” her mother asked.
“Yes, but that is funny too, Mommy. She just keeps saying the same letter. Over and over again.”
“Letter? What do you mean? Like the alphabet?”
“What letter?” This time the voice came from the phone.
“Fuck! Shit. Damn. Cock. Cunt. Mother fucking son of a bitch.”
“Mercedes Reba Reynolds, there is a child present,” her mother scolded, but Angel was only giggling behind her hand.
“Is she going to have a time out, Mommy?”
Ryan could see that both his cousin and Jaycee, hell, all of them were having trouble keeping a straight face.
Another voice came on the line, “She might need a spanking for that one.”
“We don’t do spankings. Right, Mommy?”
The look that passed between the woman and her husband made even Ryan blush. “I’m sure that Mercy is very sorry, Angel. Can we all please watch our language?”
“Hello, Will,” Ryan stepped in as Jaycee seemed intent on her husband and Grandfather. “I don’t know what Mercy has told you. She hasn’t even gotten around to telling us how you got messed up in this.”
“It’s a long story. And she didn’t tell me anything. She just burst into tears and handed me the da… blessed phone.”
“I’m not sure what is going on. But what the he… Heck, were you doing in Sebida?”
There was another long pause, and Ryan could hear the sobs and talking in the background. Finally, Will came back online. “I need to make this quick, Ryan. Mercy needs me. Long story short. Tyler fired me because I was one of the agents that let McBride escape.”
“You let that bas… McBride go? And you have my daughter? I want to talk to Mercy. Now!”
Ryan was almost as shocked as Stacey Reynolds at this latest. That was so unlike the man he had known, or thought he did?
“Listen, Missus Reynolds; it isn’t what you think. Right now, my Mercy is in no better shape to talk than you are.”
“Hey, Stacey, it’s me, Jack. Is Reb with you?”
“Yes, so what? That’s not his daughter with some traitor willing to sell himself out for a few bucks.”
“Please, Missus Reynolds, will you let me explain?”
“Hey, buddy, what shit has hit the fan now?” Another masculine voice came on the line.
Jack laughed, “Hey, Reb, can you keep this one G-rated?”
“Sorry, but something is sure pushing the lady’s buttons.”
“Okay, things are getting out of control here, folks,” Jaycee turned her attention back to the conversation at hand. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but where I come from, someone is innocent until proven guilty. So can we please back the f… Back off and let the man have his say?”
“Hello, I’m Jaycee Ranger. I take it that I am now speaking with Agent Williams and Jack’s friend Reb?”
“Yeah,” Jack’s friend could barely be heard over the screaming and crying. Ryan was glad that it was garbled because he was reasonably sure that Mercy had learned to curse from her mother.
“Yes, Caleb Williams, but I prefer Will.”
“Okay, Will, would you continue? And Reb, could you make sure that Missus Reynolds knows what is being said? If you have speakerphone and mute, that would be ideal.”
“Ryan, we both know that there’s a leak. That Stephen McBride did not kill himself, right?”
“We suspect, Will.”
“No, I know. Don’t ask me how, because you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I know, I know, he’s a hawk man, and he knows things, doesn’t he, Grandfather?” Angel looked up from her drawing again.
The old man nodded, “You may speak plainly, my son. Though I do not know you or your gifts, the child is right. Some of us understand that there are things beyond that which we can touch, see, hear, smell, or taste. It is safe here to speak of such things.”
There was a long sigh and silence on the other end of the phone. “Okay, I don’t know what it is or how, but I have always just known things. Not like a psychic or anything. I just know what’s in people’s hearts, good or evil. My Grandmother called it a discerning of spirits. It’s how I just sensed which informants I could trust and which I couldn’t, Ryan.”
“I understand better than you realize, Will. I call it my gut, Grandfather says it is my berserkr heritage. But it’s not quite the same. It’s more about situations than people, some sense of danger.”
“Gees, so everyone here is some Z-men superhero, except me? Oh great,” Jack shrugged.
Ryan and Rex laughed, thinking how like the Jack they had always known. Would he ever grow up? How many times had Grandfather counseled him to have patience, to seek peace, that his time would come? But that was Jack.
“Anyway, I’m not sure how to explain it, but I got close to McBride’s kid. Callie is special. I don’t know how or what, but I felt something. The old man could see I had a soft spot for his kid. Then… When my Grandmother died, well, I lost it a bit. He must have seen that, or maybe he was just desperate.”
“He came to me, offered me money, said he just wanted to get the girl and her mother somewhere safe.”
“And you believed him?” Jaycee asked.
“Yeah, I knew he was telling the truth about that. It may be the only decent thing that man ever did. But he wasn’t lying about that. I don’t know how he ended up dead. Especially in Sebida. That’s the thing; almost three years ago, my cousin was kidnapped on her way to school.”
“But the Dallas police dismissed the whole…blessed…thing. They told her mother that she had probably just run away. Bebe had never missed a day of school in her life, she was an honor roll student, but because she was black, they couldn’t be bothered…”
Grandfather smiled as he held up Angel’s stick figure-ish drawing in brown crayon, with black spirals for hair, a blue skirt, and a bright red backpack.