Six years later
Florida, June 1
A corrections’ officer escorted David from his prison cell along the hallway into a small office just outside of the death-row unit. “You’ve only got five minutes,” the guard said as he unshackled David’s hands from behind his back.
David massaged his wrists. He didn’t know who Ernesta Wells was, how she organized this call, or why, and he didn’t care. He’d do anything for a temporary reprieve from his twenty-three hour, seven-day-a-week cage. Legs bound in chains, he shuffled across the office straight to the phone sitting on the messy desk. He unfolded the little slip of paper the guard had given him earlier and placed his call.
“What do you want?” he barked into the line.
“Is that you, David?” came a hushed female voice he couldn’t quite place. Whoever she was, she must have had plenty of money to be able to set up this call. He’d always taken good care of his women. Since his time was drawing near, maybe one of them had called for old time’s sake.
“Yeah. I’m busy. What the hell do you want?” He watched the corrections’ officer pace about the room, acting as if he weren’t listening to the conversation.
“I have something important to tell you that I won’t say over the phone. I’m being put on someone else’s guest list, but I have made arrangements to see you.”
The more she spoke, the more certain he was that he knew the voice. “Damn, after they hear this call, you actually believe they gonna let me see you?”
“I’m not stupid! I paid a hell of a lot of money to ensure we aren’t recorded. The only reason I’m calling is to make sure I have the ins I’ve been promised. Now that we’ve spoken, I see this was money well spent. I’ll see you in a few days.” She disconnected the line.
* * *
Chicago, June 1
Rosa stepped off the elevator and walked down the corridor to her mother’s condo. She checked her watch—8:47. Harriet didn’t usually wake until noon, but Rosa had a lot to do before Ernesto arrived in town. She’d told her mother she’d be by before nine. Harriet was so forgetful; Rosa hoped that she remembered.
She ran her hands over her short-cropped hair, straightened her gold crinkle skirt and rang the doorbell. To her surprise, Harriet opened the door immediately, with a big smile on her face and her arms opened wide.
“Happy birthday, Rosa!” Harriet hugged Rosa, then ushered her in and shut the door.
“Good morning, Mom.” Rosa was glad Harriet had remembered she’d be arriving early, but looking into her mother’s hazel, bloodshot eyes, hurt Rosa’s heart. Another reason she’d wanted to visit Harriet early was so she’d see her before Harriet got drunk.
“This waking up at the crack of dawn business is highly overrated. I’ve made coffee.” She held out her mug. “You want a cup?”
Over the years, the dash of Kahlúa and brandy Harriet put in her coffee had changed to a dash of coffee in her Kahlúa and brandy. Disappointed Harriet couldn’t stay sober for this special day, Rosa declined.
“Well, you have me up. Let’s make the best of it and go shopping. My treat. It’s your birthday!”
“Thanks, Mom, but I have a lot of work to do. Maybe another time. Why do you have it so dark in here?” Rosa went from window to window, opening the curtains. “You have a prime unit on the corner, lots of windows, yet you choose to live in a cave.” She stood with her hands on her hips. “Now, that’s much better.”
The light poured in through the bay windows, bringing the place to life. Rosa had decorated her mother’s home in soft shades of baby blue and pastel green. The three-bedroom condo had more than enough room for Harriet.
“Are Ernesto and his whore in town yet?”
Rosa approached her mother, then sank onto the plush suede sectional, readying herself for her mother’s tirade about how no good men were, especially her father. True to form, fifteen minutes later Harriet had connected every problem she had in her life to Ernesto.
“…How can you stand by him after all he’s done to me?” Harriet stared into her Kahlúa brandy concoction. “He’s turned you against me.”
“No one’s turned me against you. I love you. I just wish we could talk about anything besides how much you hate Daddy.”
Harriet pointed an accusing finger at Rosa. “There you go taking his side again. He took everything from me and humiliates me at every turn, yet you continue singing his praises…”
Rosa glanced around at the works of art, the handcrafted furniture, the oriental rugs, and the designer fixtures. Unsure of how to keep things from becoming worse but knowing things couldn’t remain the same, she massaged her temples.
“…When you were a child, you couldn’t understand what was going on between Ernesto and me. You’re grown now. There’s no excuse for you taking his side. He cheated on me with that whore, threw me out of my home in the middle of the night, and stole my child from me.”
Harriet’s words worked like an air pump. Each word filled Rosa with anguish, resentment and pain. Maximum capacity reached, Rosa felt as if she’d explode.
“I don’t have to defend his actions,” she said with a calmness she didn’t feel as she unbuttoned the second to top button on her blouse.
“They can’t be defended. That bastard—”
“Don’t say another word!”
Shock replaced the anger on Harriet’s face.
Rosa tilted her head to the side and scrunched up her face. “Who paid for this condo and everything in it? That bastard. You say you’re sick. Let me tell you what I’m sick of. I’m sick of the lies. You’ve repeated them so much you actually believe them. You were the one cheating on Daddy, not the other way around. You are the one who left us, not the other way around. You are the one who continually pushes me away, not Daddy.”
“He’s filled your head with lies about me. He’s twisted the story and has you believing I’m the monster when it’s him. He wouldn’t even let you visit me after you moved to Miami.”
“Daddy has never spoken a negative word about you to me. He thinks you need help. It’s you who’s always putting him in the negative light. You always have.”
“He told you I was cheating, and I left you! Lies, lies, lies!” She slammed her coffee mug onto the end table next to the overstuffed chair she was sitting in. “I found out about his affair with Anna, and he forced me out of your life.”
Back straight, hands folded neatly across her lap, Rosa’s silent rage worked as a shield. “The first time I saw you cheating on Daddy, I was around four. It was you and that guy who used to do the lawn.”
Harriet drew her shaky hands to her face. “Oh my God,” she gasped as she rocked back and forth, sobbing.
“I didn’t understand what I was seeing.” Rosa shook her head. “I remember the day you left us. You told me that Daddy didn’t love me.” She narrowed her gaze on her mother’s tear-soaked face. “How can you tell a six-year-old something like that? You’d been divorced at least a year before Daddy started dating Anna.”
Still rocking, Harriet stammered, “H-he forced me to l-leave. I wouldn’t leave you.” She choked on her tears. “I didn’t leave you. He made me.”
“Do you take any responsibility for the things that happen in your life? This is partially my fault. I’ve held in my feelings because I’ve always wanted to protect you. But, I’m doing more harm than good. I don’t want to resent you or avoid your calls. I want to love you. But, you won’t get better until you start facing reality and dealing with your past.”
“The only thing wrong with me is Ernesto! He ruined my life. He divorced me, threw me out, then turned you against me.”
“Daddy told me that he initiated the divorce, but he would never tell me why. Looking back with my thirty-year-old eyes, I finally understand why he did. Have you ever considered he was tired of putting up with your mess?”
Harriet took on a distant look, as if she were experiencing déjà vu. Focusing over Rosa’s shoulder, she said, “He forced me out and turned you against me.”
“I don’t need Daddy to tell me anything. I remember the final straw. I remember breaking my arm. I remember you left me at the hospital.”
“Ernesto made me leave you.”
“He was scared and angry and probably told you to leave. I don’t have any children, but I feel pretty confident saying that nothing and no one could have made me leave my baby at that hospital.” She wiped her stinging eyes. “Do you know or even care how much that hurt me, Mom?” She inhaled deeply, fighting to regain her cool veneer.
Harriet continued rocking back and forth. “I was upset. He was so angry. I couldn’t stay. I was scared.”
“Scared of what? Daddy never hurt you. Now that I think about it, that was the first and last time I’d ever seen him raise his voice at you. But, let’s say you were so afraid of this man who had never laid a hand on you. When we got home, where were you? Were you worried about me?”
“I was worried sick about you.”
“So worried that when we came into your room, you were sound asleep. Did Daddy make you go to bed also? Again, I don’t have any children, but there’s no way I would have gone to sleep until I saw my baby was home safe and sound.”
“He’s twisted everything.”
“Give it up, Mom. The next day you picked me up from school trying to turn me against Daddy. I was only six!” Tears moistening her face, she pointed at Harriet. “Then that night, you left me.” She pointed at herself.
“No, he forced me out!” Harriet shouted, picking at the pastel upholstery with her nails.
“Reality check. When we came to visit you, you said you weren’t ready to see me. I heard you through the door.”
“I was hurt. I didn’t want you seeing me like that.”
“I needed you. I thought you’d left because I wanted Daddy to stay. I blamed myself. How could you turn your crying child away?”
“It… It wasn’t your fault. It was Ernesto.”
“Stop this!” Harriet snapped to attention. “While you were busy feeling sorry for yourself, Daddy had a child to raise. He sent me to counseling to help me understand that I shouldn’t blame myself for your choices in life. And while we’re at it, he didn’t keep me from visiting you when we moved to Miami. I chose to stop because I had better things to do with my teen-age years than play nursemaid to my drunken mother.”
Realizing she was now speaking from pain, Rosa stopped herself. “I’m sorry,” she said as she hugged her mother. Harriet’s tears soaked through Rosa’s blouse. “I don’t want to fight. I know you aren’t perfect. I never expected you to be. Please, Mom, try the Alcoholics Anonymous group I told you about. I’ll go with you.”
Harriet snatched a tissue out of the box that sat on the end table, then dabbed under her eyes. “I can’t.”
Rosa could see her mother physically withdraw into her shell of denial.
“Let’s stop all of this foolishness,” Harriet said. “It’s your birthday. Having you was the happiest day of my life.” She fingered the short curls that framed Rosa’s face. “You look so much like your father and act like your aunt Angela.”
Rosa knew Harriet was drunk now. “I love you, Mom.”
* * *
DEA agent Samson Quartermaine dragged his large, dark hands over his face, smoothing down his goatee. “We only have ten days before the execution. There has to be a way to make him talk. Everyone has a price.” He slammed his notebook closed, then tossed it toward the coffee table. The notebook skidded across the table and fell to the floor.
“Martín plans on taking his secrets with him to the grave,” agent Alton Miles said as he swung his golf club at the imaginary tee. A Miami thunderstorm had made them miss tee-time, and, as usual, they ended up talking shop. “That’s one price we can’t beat. If we could only convince the FBI to put him into witness protection.”
“He’s always been able to hide his money trail. How? Who? He’ll never roll over on his silent partner. If he went into witness protection, he’d take up where he left off. The Feds can’t allow that. We need his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole.” Samson watched his partner pace around the living room of the small apartment, swinging his golf club.
“I know he’ll never give up his partner,” Alton said. “What I don’t understand is why he’d rather die than turn over the Sierra syndicate. They were his competition.”
David Martín had been sentenced to death for murdering a DEA informant and his gang. The informant had infiltrated the Sierra organization and copied account records, pipeline routes, business connections, and other information the DEA needed to bring the syndicate down.
Alton carried a straight-backed chair from the dinette area into the living room. “Who is Martín protecting and why? And what’s the purpose in giving us free rein if they won’t let us truly have free rein? Do they want us to break these syndicates or not? Hell! This is my career riding on this case. We have to bring Sierra down.”
Samson understood Alton’s frustration. Their team was given the “freedom” to bypass much of the strict structure and red tape of government agencies, but what good had it done them? “You know there’s no such thing as total freedom. I agree with the chief on this call. Offering witness protection to the head of the largest drug syndicate is out of the question. Sorry to sound politically correct, but we need to think outside the box.”
He trained his warm brown eyes on Alton’s cold blue ones. They’d been best friends since preschool, yet were as different as a monsoon and a drought. “What if he doesn’t have a silent partner? What if he didn’t obtain the information?”
Alton waved him off. “Martín never said he didn’t have the information.”
“Would we have believed him if he had? Would we believe him if he said he was the only leader? What if he doesn’t have a bargaining chip?”
“So you think he’s been dickin’ us around this whole time?”
“I don’t know. I’m throwing every possibility out there. After he was taken out of commission, his organization hiccupped, then continued with business as usual. His silent partner must have run things for a while. Otherwise, there would have been a struggle for power. Yeah, he definitely has a silent partner.” He ran his hands over his cleanly shaven head, and then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Lately something else has been needling me. Why didn’t the witness to the murders have a fatal accident before the trial? No one had ever lived to testify against David Martín. The man testified, then died in a car accident an hour later.”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing, man. I think his silent partner double-crossed him, but that brings us back to square one. I sure as hell wouldn’t die for someone who double-crossed me.”
“We need more time.”
“They won’t commute his sentence unless he gives up his partner or Sierra. Hell, you’re the lawyer. How can we have his sentence commuted?”
“Well, something’s got to change. I’m too close to let this slip by.”
Drifting into his own world, Samson looked around the one bedroom flat. Boy, has my life changed. He went from having a promising career and beautiful home to an all-consuming job and somewhere to sleep. The worn-out, tacky tan furniture was even part of the rental agreement. Three years had passed since the divorce. Tired of punishing himself, he wanted to live again, practice law again, and take control of his life again. But, he couldn’t bail out on Alton.
After Samson left his law firm, Alton kept him from shutting himself off from the world and convinced him to join the DEA. Alton had been there to kick sense into him when he needed kicking. The change of pace had worked wonders initially. Being a DEA agent was exciting and kept his mind off his troubles, but now he was ready to move on and do his own thing. After David’s execution, he planned on turning in his resignation.
“Anybody home?” Alton knocked the coffee table with the head of his golf club. “Hell, forget this. It’s Sunday. We’re off. Let’s go to the pool hall and worry about this in the morning.”
“I’m with you.” He stood to leave. Only thirty-four-years old, Samson still had a lot of life to live. Thoughts of his large family comforted his aching heart. He hadn’t seen them since his sister’s funeral a year ago. She’d been on his mind a lot lately. “I forgot to ask your status on the Ernesta Wells’ call David received.”
“I’ve already run her. Of course, her name is totally bogus. We’ll allow the guards to believe they’re getting away with smuggling her in until after we’ve interviewed Ernesta. The warden’s gonna call us as soon as she arrives.” Alton stood and reached in his pocket for the keys to his Mustang.
“She’s our only lead,” Samson said. “That and flowers. He’s been obsessed with them lately. His cell walls look like he has floral print wall paper.”
“Maybe he’s dreaming about his funeral. Martín dies in ten days. We need to find out who he’s actually protecting and why, or get his sentence commuted. I don’t give a damn how we do it.”
* * *
“Happy birthday, CNN,” said the news correspondent. “The nation’s first all-news station debuted on this day in 1980…”
Opening the door, Rosa heard CNN, and her spirits lifted. The news playing could only mean one thing. She dropped her keys into her purse, setting it on the entry table.
“Daddy!” She rounded the corner into the living room where he stood with his arms held out. She hugged her grizzly bear of a father. “You’re early.” Though he lived in Miami, they had keys and the combinations to each other’s residences.
His hearty chuckle filled the room. “You want me to leave and come back?”
After the dose of disappointment her mother injected, Ernesto’s loving embrace was just the antidote she needed. “You’d better not.” She fought the urge to cry. She couldn’t save her mother if she refused to recognize that she needed saving.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I visited Mom today. That’s always draining.”
He lifted her chin with his fingertip. “She’s the one losing out, not you.” He wiped the tears from her face. “I have something for you.” He turned her around.
A glimpse of brown beside her large, white sofa caught her eye. “You didn’t.” She walked around to investigate. “You did! An African stool.” She knelt beside the Asante chief’s stool, running her hand over the fine dark wood of the concave surface. Excited to see Ernesto, she’d missed the stool when she came in. The craftsmen carved each stool out of a single piece of wood. The base of this particular stool was an elephant, a sign of chiefly authority. “Thank you, Daddy.”
“You have two ends to this couch.”
“Two! You got me two?” She went to the other side of the couch, and sure enough, there was a second stool. This one’s base was a lion, reserved for royalty. Both stools were only two- feet-tall, making them perfect end tables. She knew the antiques’ original purpose, but she didn’t want people sitting on them.
“You need to get dressed. We’ve only begun to celebrate your thirtieth.”
“Why didn’t I turn thirty years ago? How should I dress?”
Arms crossed over his chest, he raised a brow. She laughed. He always wore designer suits, handcrafted Italian leather shoes, and Egyptian cotton or some other fine-fabric dress shirt. He did everything in first class style.
“I guess bowling and Burger King are out.”
He moved several large throw pillows out of the way, so he could sit comfortably. “Who’s Burger King?” He winked.
* * *
Rosa and Ernesto boarded the Odyssey cruise ship, which was docked at Navy Pier on Lake Michigan. Known for its elegance, the Odyssey had three levels, each ensuring its guests a great time.
“Let’s have our picture taken,” Rosa suggested.
The photographer positioned Rosa and Ernesto along the railing and snapped shots. “You’re a very lucky man,” the young man said.
Pride filled Ernesto’s light eyes. “My daughter is something, isn’t she? It’s her birthday.”
Ernesto missed the man’s double take, but Rosa didn’t. She didn’t resemble either of her parents, so she figured she must look like some of her family that she didn’t know, which was all of it. With Ernesto growing up in foster care and Harriet’s only sister disowning her, Rosa considered herself family-poor.
As the man clicked more pictures, she observed Ernesto. In his early sixties, he was still a handsome man. She reached up and ran her finger through an area of his hair that had more gray than black.
He smiled down at her. “I’m getting old.”
“Mature.” She hugged him.
They had spent the majority of their day at the Art Institute enjoying the exhibits, with her talking about the children she tutored during the school year, and him giving her pointers on how to expand her computer-networking firm.
Ernesto had raised the bar, using Bolívar International as the example. Proud of her father, Rosa listened to most of his advice because she knew it was sound.
The pictures printed out instantly. Liking what they saw, Ernesto paid for the photos, and then escorted Rosa around to the Topaz deck. The ship left dock and cruised Lake Michigan, providing a breathtaking view of Chicago’s night skyline.
“Where’s everyone?” Rosa asked. The outside portion of the deck was deserted. “The main point in these cruises is to see the skyline from the lake.”
Ernesto frowned. “This is strange. I’ll go inside and see what’s going on. Stay here.” He walked around the deck chairs toward the entrance.
Rosa followed. “I’m coming, too. You’re not leaving me in the Twilight Zone.”
The perfect gentleman, he opened and held the door open for her.
“Thank you, kind sir.” She stepped into the Topaz dining area.
“Surprise!” cheered the crowd.
Rosa clutched her heart in fear, and then realized what was happening. The dining hall was filled to the deck’s two-hundred-person capacity with her tiny family, friends and co-workers.
Juan, one of the children she babysat, ran to her with his hands held up. “Wosa!” She lifted the three-year-old, swinging him around. “Wheee!” he squealed.
She stopped spinning and placed him on her hip. “¿Como estas, Juan?”
“English, Rosa,” Ernesto chastised. “He must learn.”
“Yes, Daddy.” Not in the mood for an English lesson, she held the child close. Often, she wondered if Ernesto was ashamed of his Colombian blood. He’d claim to be a proud Afro-Colombian, and they were both fluent in Spanish, but she knew there was so much more to the culture. It was Anna who had taught her about El Choco, Colombia, also known as the African Heart of Colombia, where Ernesto’s family came from; Anna who had taught her the many similarities between African-American and Afro-Colombian history, Anna who had convinced Ernesto to take Rosa on a trip to Colombia for her high school graduation gift.
Then again, it was Ernesto who sparked her love for African art, and Ernesto who had raised her a proud black woman.
Juan, tugging on her arm, broke her musings. Ready to enjoy her special day, she gazed into his smiling face. Someday, she’d have a child of her own. The crowd continued gathering around to wish her happy birthday.
Someone pulled on her waist. She looked over her shoulder. “Mom!” Juan remained planted firmly on her hip as she hugged Harriet. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this.”
“And ruin the surprise? Never! Stand back and let me see you.”
Rosa handed Juan to Ernesto, then spun to show off her new designer dress. The sheer black rayon shell and Georgette lining were close-fitting without being tight; the sleeves were capped and the sides slit up to the knees. A rose border print swept diagonally across the front and along the hemline.
“You’re simply breathtaking.”
Rosa bowed gracefully. “Why, thank you. You’re looking pretty good yourself.” She had to give Harriet her props. She always dressed nicely, and tonight was no different. Harriet sported a burgundy silk pantsuit and had her hair in a French knot with a few curls falling freely.
She waved Rosa on. “Go ahead with your friends. Have a good time.”
Grateful Harriet wasn’t drunk, she kissed her mother’s chocolate cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Rosa turned to greet everyone else and bumped into Anna. “Someone’s been keeping secrets.”
“One… two tops.” Anna winked. “Harriet’s right. You’re breathtaking.”
Harriet grumbled under her breath as she pushed her way past Anna and stalked off toward the bar.
Rosa narrowed her eyes on her mother. She’d better not cause the usual scene. Not tonight.
She returned her attention to the dark statuesque beauty her father had married. Anna would never replace her mother, yet Rosa had carved a special spot in her heart for Anna. Many a night, she spent talking to Anna about her troubles, wants and desires. Many a night, she spent wishing Harriet were more like Anna.
“I’m sorry about—”
“Stop apologizing for your mother.” Anna fingered the curls about Rosa’s face. “I love this new look.” She hugged Rosa. “Everyone’s waiting on you to get out there and shake your groove thang.”
Anna’s attempt at slang had Rosa laughing. “Groove thang? Okay, I’m out.” She took Juan from Ernesto and headed for the dance floor.
* * *
“I’m worried about Rosa,” Ernesto said. Dinner finished, most of the party guests were on the dance floor or on the boat’s deck enjoying the view. Ernesto remained at the head table with Anna, watching Rosa.
Anna patted her husband’s hand under the table. “She has such a kind heart. Look at her out there with Juan.” Rosa was on the dance floor teaching Juan how to step to a R. Kelly jam. “I don’t think his mom will ever get him back. Our baby is ready to settle down and have children of her own.”
Ernesto’s brows furrowed. “I’m not talking about that. I was only thirty-two when I married the first time, and look what a disaster that turned out to be. She has plenty of time to start a family. I’m worried about her trying to save Harriet. That woman’s the pilot on a one-way trip to self-destruction. I don’t want Rosa caught up.”
Harriet stumbled over to Ernesto’s table. “How could you bring your whore to my daughter’s party?” she slurred.
“Please, Harriet,” Anna said before Ernesto could speak. “Not tonight. I’m willing to leave. This is too special for Rosa.”
“My point exactly. Your ass shouldn’t be here!” She stomped on the floor, spilling a portion of her Long Island iced tea on her silk suit.
Ernesto glared at Harriet. The party was Anna’s idea, but she was willing to stay away because she didn’t want Harriet to cause a scene. He’d told Harriet, and she’d insisted that she knew how to behave. He’d prayed that for once Harriet would put her child first. Having the three of them in the same room without a fight would have been a long-awaited, much-needed first for Rosa.
“What the hell you looking at?” she asked Ernesto.
Ernesto stood to drag Harriet out of the party if necessary. He should have followed his own mind instead of Anna’s, and not invited Harriet.
“Mother!” Rosa spun Harriet around to her. “Grab your wraps,” she said through tight lips. “We’re leaving!”
* * *
After the boat docked, Rosa dropped her mother off at her condo, then called Ernesto and told him that she wasn’t returning to the party. He tried to change Rosa’s mind, but the moment had been ruined for her. Instead, she went home, showered, and readied for bed. Mind weary, she reached into her nightstand for her two best friends: journal and pen.
Ernesto had started her writing journals when she was eight. He said women had all of these extra emotions and journaling helped get the emotions out before they drove the men in their lives crazy. A smile warmed her heart as she readied her pen, thanking God again for her father.
I love Mom, but things have to change. She doesn’t respect my feelings or care about the awkward positions she continually puts me in, and I’m tired of it.
She wrote everything that had happened throughout the day regarding Harriet. Maybe the books are right, and I’m an enabler. She tapped her chin with the end of the pen. I’ve remained quiet out of respect; but if I remain quiet, things will never get better. I hate to admit this, but it felt good telling Mom off this afternoon. Freeing. She doodled a few scribbles. Things have to change.