Elena was there before Laura had finished nursing Chloe. Her middle sister was pregnant with her second child in less than two years of marriage. It was ironic really; that her sister had married the man who replaced their grandfather as the Methodist minister.
Brad had met the wrong end of their Mama’s Smith & Wesson when he first came to check up on the ‘backsliders.’ Elena had told him in no uncertain terms what their family thought of the church and why. Most young ministers would have been frightened off, if not by the gun, then certainly by the vitriol their family held for his church. But whether it was her sister or some misplaced Christian duty, the man kept coming back.
And eventually, his rather progressive ideas of Christianity had intrigued Elena and Mercy enough to at least go one Sunday morning. But not her or Mama. It was well and good to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and house the homeless – all the things that Jesus taught, but Sebida wanted no part of it. But Brad kept plugging along at it, though the pews were emptier every Sunday.
Elena sat down on the bed next to her. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”
Laura considered playing dumb, but it would be better for them to know what was going on, easier for them to protect themselves. “There’s a bit of trouble with the whole McBride thing.”
“We figured that when Mama called last night and suggested we take an unscheduled mission trip. How bad is it?”
“Ryan is taking the baby and me someplace safe for a bit.”
She hesitated, was it possible that they were overly cautious? Was there any real threat to her family? After all, McBride Industries was a Fortune 500 company, not a drug cartel. But then again, they did not know who the McBride’s had been laundering money for, but drug cartels and terrorists were genuine possibilities.
“But, there’s a chance that they could get to you through us?” Her sister put her fears into words.
She reached out and took her sister’s hand in hers. Elena had always been the delicate one. Laura had no choice. As the eldest, it was her responsibility to care for her younger siblings. And as much as Mercy liked to keep her head in those books, she had a practical streak a mile wide. But Elena was always some fairy creature.
“I don’t want to frighten you, but yeah. That’s why it would be best if you and Brad took Rehab on a mission trip for a few weeks. I know it is kinda sudden, but I’m sure the deacons can cover Sunday services.”
Elena laughed as she rubbed her belly. “The pews will probably be fuller than if we were here.”
Laura was concerned about the anxiety written in her sister’s face, but this was not the time to discuss whatever was bothering Elena. “Hand me the bag on the floor there.”
Elena reached for the bag but struggled to lift it the few feet to the bed. “What’s in here? Bricks?”
“Here, let me help with that.” Ryan came in, carrying a steaming cup that smelled as revolting as it tasted. He sat it on the nightstand next to the bed and lifted the bag onto the bed next to her.
Laura hesitated, was she ready to reveal all her secrets to this man? But if anything did happen to her, he needed to know. In order to care for Chloe. She unzipped the bag and reached inside, finding another compartment and unfastening it too. She pulled out two bound stacks of bills and passed them towards Elena. “Take this. Just in case.”
At first, her sister shook her head, “We can’t take your money.”
Laura pressed the money into her sister’s trembling fingers. “Don’t worry. It is MY money. I earned it, nothing illegal about that. It’s my savings.”
“But, you might need this?”
Laura pulled out four more stacks of hundred dollar bills. “There’s plenty more.”
She looked at Ryan, “I’ve been clearing out my bank accounts ever since the whole McBride thing hit the news. A few thousand at a time, but not enough to trigger any of the safeguards.” He nodded but remained quiet.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last. I want you, Brad, and the kids to be safe and comfortable. Just far from Sebida and this mess. I’m sorry, Elena. Sorry, ya’ll are caught up in this.”
Her sister fingered the bills, “How much is here?”
“Twenty grand. It should be enough for a long while in the places ya’ll go. Just promise me…” Laura stumbled over the words. It was not a subject she had ever discussed with her sister or wanted to for that matter, but it was important to her. “Promise me you won’t give it to them.”
“No chance of that. I know we never talked about it – about him. But I think you should know. That family is deep into the cartels. Not Papa, he’s got dementia. But his oldest son, our older brother,” Laura heard her sister stumble over the word. They had never thought of their father’s other family as related in any way. “Diego is pretty high up,” her sister almost whispered.
“Who? Diego who? Diego Garcia?” She could see Ryan’s shoulders tense, and he bit the inside of his cheek again. This could not be good.
Elena nodded her head, “I don’t know exactly, but high. His family controls, practically own, that town.” Her eyes sought out Laura’s, “I promise, we haven’t been back. We won’t. We travel the long way round to avoid not just that town but the whole state.”
Laura was silent for a long time before she spoke. Her eyes sought Ryan’s once more. She hoped like hell his poker face was better in the courtroom or when undercover than it was around her. She reached into the bag and passed two more of the stacks to her sister.
“I know Brad had spoken about a mission trip to Africa. Do it. Take the money and go there. Convert the cash. It’s not safe to travel with it. Gold, jewels, that sort of thing. Pass them off as fake, unless you need them. You won’t get as much as they are worth, but it is a safer option.”
“And don’t travel from here. Go to Canada or Mexico, maybe even Central or South America. Get a flight or boat from there.” Tears welled in her eyes, “If you need more get in touch with Mama, she knows where I keep the rest.”
Her sister was crying too, “Are you sure this is necessary?”
Laura forced as reassuring a smile as she could manage. “No, no, I’m not. But I’d sure rather ya’ll be safe than worry about you.”
She wanted to put as positive a spin on it as she could. “I know this is a pilgrimage that Brad has wanted to take for a long time. What was the Methodist Church thinking? Sending a black man to take Grandpa’s church is beyond me.”
Laura sighed and squeezed her sister’s hand, “But if all this does something good, then all the better. Just stay in touch with Mama. Promise me.”
“The Methodists don’t have a whole lot of choice when it comes to ministers these days. Old white men are dying out to be replaced by women and minorities. Things are changing in this world, whether Sebida wants to admit that or not. And I promise – we’ll be okay.”
“Get Brad to take the baby and leave now. But I need you to do me a favor first.”
“Anything. We are family. I got all my sisters and me,” her sister sang.
“Just tell me that the Methodists aren’t desperate enough to put you in the choir,” she teased to lighten the mood.
“No, I leave the singing to Bradley. Now, what do you need, big sister?”
“I need you to be me for a couple of hours.”
Ryan was nervous as he stood in the checkout line at Walmax. Three dozen newborn diapers, a case of formula, half a dozen baby and parenting books, and a box of maternity pads should be enough to start a conversation with the older woman behind the till. Enough for her to remember him and this conversation.
“Good morning. New baby, I see. Boy or a girl?” she asked as she began to ring things up.
“A little girl. But her Mama ain’t doing so good. My dang wife insisted on one of them new fangle homebirths, but now she’s bleeding. More than I think she should anyway. I’m gonna take her to the hospital as soon as I get this stuff back to her Mama. She’s gonna take care of the baby,” he lied.
The woman nodded her grey head, “These women today. Homebirths, indeed? I had four, and trust me, I was begging for every med them doctors had.” She chortled, and her belly shook, “I hardly remember a thing. Of course, that might be why I had four of them. Thems was good drugs.”
“And don’t you worry none, ain’t nothing wrong with bottle feeding babies either.” She adjusted her smock over large breasts, “No young’ un was sucking on these things and making them all saggy. Of course, time did that in the end anyway. But let me tell you, in my younger days, I filled out a sweater.”
Ryan blushed, perhaps he should have chosen another line. No, this woman was almost certain to remember the conversation. Stephens should waste a few hours checking out all the hospitals in the area for a woman with a post-partum hemorrhage.
He wondered if Jack had gotten Laura and Chloe safely away. Had Stacey shown up at the house to take Elena to the hospital? Dressed in one of Laura’s gowns and robes and doubled over holding her belly in pain, Laura was convinced that the whole town would be gossiping about her stupid decision to have her baby at home. While she, Chloe, and Jack were on the road in one direction, Brad and their little girl were meeting his wife and her mother on an old dirt road to do the exchange. They would go the other.
“That’ll be two-hundred-thirty-six dollars and fifty-nine cents. Cash or card?”
Ryan pulled out his personal debit card. He knew that Stephens would have canceled his business account by now. And besides, this was personal. Even if his goal was the same as it had been when he came here – to get to the truth. He swiped the card.
“I’m sorry, sugar. But that’s been declined.”
So, Stephens was playing hardball. Ryan took out his wallet and drew out three crisp one-hundred-dollar bills and handed them to the woman. “Sorry, with the whole messy birth thing and worrying about Laura, I haven’t had time to make it to the bank to deposit my paycheck yet.”
The woman held the bills up to the light and then used a marker on them. “There’s a check cashing place, over in the corner, if you’re worried about having enough cash. They charge a bit, but you don’t want to get stuck in a hospital without some cash.”
“Thanks.” It might not be a bad idea to convert some of the cash he had taken from Chloe’s diaper bag to smaller bills. While they wanted this woman to remember his visit, and his card being denied made that a virtual certainty, once they were on the road, anonymity was their friend.
“You take care of that baby and woman of yours, sugar.” The woman smiled before turning back to the line, “Next, please.”
Ryan sent a plea to god, or whatever was out in the big vast universe, that Laura, Chloe, and her family were all safe. Of course, no amount of pleading had convinced Stacey Reynolds to leave Sebida. Not yet, she said, insisting that she could handle Sheriff Kerr when he showed up asking questions.
Laura had begged and pleaded with her baby sister to call in sick. Tell the people at the library that her sister needed her. But the girl was as stubborn as her Mama and her big sister. Jack insisted that Mercy stay in one of the suites at the casino. She had promised Laura she would go just as soon as her shift at the library was over. Their mother would join her once she cried and moaned an Oscar-worthy performance for their crooked sheriff. Jack had even asked an old Army buddy that was doing some security upgrades at the casino to keep a special eye on them.
The plan was solid. And everything was going exactly to that plan. But there were just so many unknowns. And the one that worried Ryan most was – who in the agency could he trust and where was the traitor?
Laura came awake to the soft mewing of a kitten. That did not make sense. She did not own a cat.
“Hey, sweetheart, we’ve pulled over for a bit. Chloe needs to be fed. Jack has gone into the store to see what crap he can find for us to eat as well,” Ryan held their crying daughter out towards her.
She tried to shift into a more comfortable position on the mattress. Jack’s ‘baby’ had been quite a surprise – a classic 1965 Volkswagon Type 2 microbus. He had ‘won’ it in a poker game over a decade ago while stationed at Fort Bragg. It had not been much when he got it, rusted out and not running, but over the years, he had worked to restore it. Right down to a killer hippy flower paint job. He had explained the whole thing on their trip to meet Lupe in Navasota.
The best thing was that he had fitted it out for road trips. There was a mini-fridge as well as the old mattress at the back. It even had curtains on the side windows to give them added privacy.
Before leaving Old Man Ledbetter’s garage, Jack had thrown his surfing board on the rack up top. The cover story was he needed some time away, a break to come to terms with his grandfather’s death, and make some decisions about the terms of his will. So, Jack was heading to Corpus Christi for some surfing. Of course, they had avoided the interstate, taking mostly smaller country roads towards the Hill Country.
Laura groaned as she turned on her side and reached for the baby. Lupe had warned her that staying in one position too long could be painful, but they did not have much choice. Until they reached Grandfather’s ranch, she, Ryan, and the baby needed to stay out of sight.
He held out the squirming bundle, “Anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”
She shook her head as she pushed aside the loose top of Elena’s dress and got Chloe attached properly to her nipple. She would kill for a pee, but the porta-potty thing in the van was only a last resort, due to the decided lack of privacy. “How much further?”
“Another two hours or so. We needed to stop for gas and food but bypassed Austin. Too many closed-circuit cameras there. Jack ran across this place just as Chloe woke up and started to fuss, so it seemed as good a place as any.”
She could not see anything from where she lay in the back. But one thing was for sure – she could not go another two hours without peeing. “Any chance I can get out, stretch my legs, and use the bathroom once I get Chloe fed?”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but we can’t take the risk of either of us being seen. Afraid, that is your only option,” he replied, motioning to the raised square container that was built-into the far wall.
Laura started to shake her head, but Ryan interrupted. “Laura, I know the idea is embarrassing, but it can’t be healthy for you to go almost eight hours without…
She laughed, “Peeing. Look if you can’t even say the word, how do you expect me to…”
“Pee?” He bit into his cheek once more, “I get it. I know lots of couples who have been together for years who don’t,” he sucked in a deep breath, “pee in front of one another.”
He smiled reassuringly at her as she adjusted her position again. But there was no way she was going to get comfortable, or as he said, wait another two hours to pee.
“How about we consider this one of those stupid corporate team-building exercises? I mean, if we’re gonna get through this mess and build a family for Chloe, we need to trust one another, right? So, a bit of intense team building might be just what we need.”
She stared at him for a long moment as their baby nursed, “Fine, then you go first, hotshot.”
She had thought that would be enough to send Ryan fleeing. She had even used her best man-eater voice, the one she had honed for mansplaining misogynists. So, she was shocked when Ryan shrugged, “Fair enough, counselor.”
She was so stunned that she could not find words, something that she could not remember happening before. He turned his back and lifted the lid. She watched his tight ass, almost spellbound as he seemed to fumble with his jeans.
She was almost relieved when the only sound was Chloe’s sucking. She was just about to make another smart-mouthed remark when the clear tinkle proved her wrong. She looked away from that tight ass as it clinched.
She was sure that her cheeks were flaming as Ryan turned and pulled a wipe from the bag near her head. She was uncertain what to say now.
Ryan was not, “As soon as she is through on that side, I’ll take the baby and help you up. I’d rather we finish our team building before Jack gets back.”
Laura wanted to argue the point, but she knew that her bladder would not agree. She inserted her pinky in the corner of Chloe’s mouth and broke the suction. Her daughter scrunched up her face as if she was considering arguing too, but did not manage to get a cry out before Ryan scooped her into his arms and up to his shoulder.
“Here, take my hand,” he held it out towards her.
Laura did not have any other choice. She could not meet his gaze as she slowly used his arm to pull herself to a sitting position. There was not enough room to stand in the van. Instead, she made it to her knees and crawled towards the potty.
“Move out of my way and turn around,” she barked.
Ryan nodded as he brought Chloe to his shoulder and began to gently pat her back to burp the baby.
Laura was eternally grateful that Elena always preferred dresses. It was hard enough to get the bulky maternity panties down, especially with the pad. She examined it; Lupe had changed it in Navasota, but that was hours ago. She was relieved that the amount of bleeding seemed to be normal.
She sat on the toilet, trying her best to concentrate on relieving her bladder, rather than the man, who was crooning to their daughter. Ryan was so close that if she reached out, she could touch him. She was just about to say that this was not going to work when nature won out.
When she finished, she faced another challenge. She needed a wipe to clean up, and she should probably change the pad while she was at it. But how did she ask him, a man, for such things? A man she barely knew — a man who was the father of her child.
“Are you okay?” he asked as he turned around a bit.
She blushed and pulled the dress even further down her knees. She supposed given the fact that this man had been her lover and spent more than the perfunctory three licks down there that night, and had, in fact, delivered their daughter, maybe she was overreacting a bit?
She stared at the floor of the van. Her voice was barely a whisper, “Could you hand me a wipe, please?”
He reached into the bag, passing her a couple. “And a…” She was not sure she could bring herself to say those words.
“One of those maternity pad thingies?” he asked as he shifted Chloe to his other shoulder and reached into another bag, passing her the whole box.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. More embarrassed now that he was handling this challenge with more grace and aplomb than she had.
It took her only a couple of moments to get settled, thankfully the packaging of this brand doubled as disposal as well. But she blushed as she added it to the bag of chips wraps and a couple of diapers. “You changed her diaper?”
He grinned as he held out his arm again, “I’m not making any promises that I did it right. But you can find videos on anything on the internet.”
“Your cell. Fuck, they can trace us.” How could a man like him, a federal agent, forget such a simple thing?
“I used Jack’s. Mine is halfway across the state by now in the back of some semi that was parked at Walmax in Madison.”
He handed Chloe to her as she lay down on her other side and pulled the loose top aside once more, “I gave mine to Lupe. She promised to drop it off at the hospital in Bryan on her way home.”
“You think of everything, don’t you?”
“I had good training. Mama always had a plan for everything – fire, tornado, flood, robbers, even alien invaders,” she laughed.
“Like mother, like daughter. So I was your emergency backup plan.”
She blushed, “I guess I should say sorry for lying to you.”
“Don’t you dare. I might wish things had happened differently than they have, but I will never regret my daughter.” He bent down so that they were eye to eye, “Or that night.”
“Only the job I had to carry through with afterward. If anyone should say sorry, it’s me.” He shook his head, “I’d like to say I was doing it to protect you, but the truth was…”
He did not get to finish as the driver’s door opened and Jack slipped behind the wheel. He looked in the rearview mirror for a moment before turning the key. The van hummed to life as if it were new. He pulled out onto the road before he spoke.
“Sorry, they did not have much other than cardboard sandwiches. The girl behind the counter asked too many questions. I think she was just flirting, but I hope she bought my story about not wanting to stop again until I hit the Gulf.”
Ryan looked at her before reaching out to take the bag that Jack passed over the seat, “Good thing we stayed out of sight then.”
Laura watched Chloe nurse, tears filled her eyes, as an afterpain hit her. Lupe said that was perfectly normal, but it hurt like a bitch as it sliced through her abdomen. “Oh, the tangled web we weave,” she kissed the top of her baby’s head and closed her eyes. Even if she did not sleep, at least if her eyes were closed, they would not expect her to engage in conversation.