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Barbara had looked over the two letters she had written on behalf of her clients. One of them had paid her in homemade tamales, and the other had promised to pay something as soon as possible. She folded the letters, put them in envelopes, stamped, ready to go. She glanced at her mail and decided nothing there needed immediate attention and turned to the newspaper. Reagan was going somewhere or other; the city council members had wrangled about something or other. Either nothing else was going on or her attention span was such that nothing was registering long enough to form a memory. Now what? she asked herself. All that expensive education, she thought derisively, all that time wasted in studying law, in preparation for a couple of letters about petty problems or reading escape fiction. A book a night was her current routine, and she had a stack of books to return to the library later that day. Before or after a long walk was the only pressing issue to be decided when she got around to it. A relentless rain was stalling even that decision.
After she quit pretending to read the newspaper, she continued to sit at her desk and gaze at her office. Room enough for her desk, a comfortable enough chair, one other straight chair, and many boxes of things, stuff. It was sufficient even if there was little room to move.
The house was tiny, but it was a real house, not an apartment with people just a wall away, coming and going at all hours, laughing, yelling at each other, opening and closing doors. Living. She wanted no one close enough to hear, and this cramped, miserable house provided that solitude. Furthermore, she thought angrily, she didn’t give a damn what her father thought about it. Not that he had said anything, but his expression the previous night, even that stony silence, that one sweeping glance around followed by a refusal to look anywhere but at her had been eloquent. At dinner, he had made his outlandish proposal.
“What I’m doing these days is coming in on Tuesday morning,” Frank had said. “I work on the book with Patsy, on through Wednesday and Thursday, and go back out to the McKenzie place on Thursday evening to deconstruct the cross-examinations. And that means an apartment or a hotel or something for a couple of nights each week. I hate hotels, and you can’t rent an apartment for just two days a week. I want to rent a nice big house or apartment and you can live in it and let me have one bedroom for those two nights when I’m in town. Good idea?”
Conniving, cunning, conspiring, and ever so innocent. She had shaken her head. “Dad, why don’t you just spend those two nights at my place?”
“And sleep on the floor?” Frank’s astonishment at the idea was quite real, his rejection as swift as a reflex.
“It’s called a futon, Dad. It makes a bed, and it’s on a platform, not on the floor.”
He wouldn’t give up, she knew. He wanted her back in the law office where he was one of the two founding fathers, and he wanted her back in his house. Although he claimed he was retiring, he was keeping his spacious office, which she suspected he intended to hand over to her when and if he ever really retired. He had told her to make use of it, use the law library, the interns, whatever she needed. She could almost envy him, she thought, not for anything material, but for the new enjoyment he was finding in his second career as a writer. He was writing a book on cross-examinations and loved doing it.
She should just tell him it was over, she decided. She was looking for her own second career. She would never return to his law offices. Never. The real question for her was what second career. And that was a pisser, she added, nodding. She wasn’t fit to do anything else, hadn’t trained for anything other than to practice law. She should have had a double major, one that would allow her to move right into social services of some sort, or the financial system as a counselor or something, or even medicine. Meanwhile, this tiny office was sufficient for the tiny problems neighborhood people brought to her doorstep. Rent problems, landlord problems, fences or lack of fences …
The ringing of her doorbell roused her from her thoughts, and almost regretfully she left the little office to see what impoverished neighbor needed a bit of legal advice.
At her door was the biggest, blackest man she had ever seen along with a diminutive lighter woman. He was at least six foot six, possibly even taller, and appeared to be as wide as the door itself. The woman at his side was almost doll-like in comparison.
“Ms. Holloway? Could we have a few minutes of your time?” he asked. “We need advice from an attorney.” He was holding a dripping umbrella. He closed it and added it to the one in a bucket on the stoop. The steady rain that had been falling all morning was still pounding down.
“Of course,” she said, and moved aside for them to enter. He ducked when he passed through the doorway, and the room became crowded instantly. Barbara looked around, then motioned toward the only chair that would accommodate him, one she had chosen for comfort, her own reading chair. “I’ll take your coats to dry out in the kitchen,” she said. And she would bring in a straight chair for the woman. The only other place possible was the futon. The office was out of the question. He might break the single visitor’s chair she had.
When she returned a minute later with a kitchen chair, he said, “My name is Owens, Martin Owens, and this is my wife, Binnie. She was born mute, so she won’t do any of the talking, but it’s her story that’s brought us here.”
Barbara held out her hand to Binnie and for the first time really examined her face. She had been too conscious of Martin Owens’s size to study his wife before. She was a beautiful young woman, no taller than five feet, with a shapely body that her T-shirt and jeans did nothing to detract from, fine cheekbones, short dark brown hair with a little curl, and expressive, large, milk-chocolate-colored eyes. It was unmistakable that she was terrified. Her hand was very cold and trembled in Barbara’s.
Martin Owens’s hand enveloped hers as they shook, but his grip was surprisingly gentle.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Owens?” Barbara asked after they were all seated.
Binnie had moved her chair as close to him as possible, put her handbag on the floor, and reached for his hand as soon as she sat down. Barbara suspected his grasp of it was as gentle as his handshake had been.
“We want to know if there’s an appeal process for a violation of the immigration law. If they will take circumstances under consideration. How to go about starting such a process right away. I mean, if they order someone to provide proof of citizenship, or demand a birth certificate, or something of that sort, if there’s a way to make them understand why it can’t be done. At least not soon.”
Barbara held up her hand. “Mr. Owens, I’m afraid I’m not the person you need. Please understand that there are specialties in law, exactly as there are in medicine. You wouldn’t go to a brain surgeon for an appendectomy. I’m a defense attorney, not an immigration attorney. It’s outside my field and I can’t answer your questions. What I could do is find you an attorney with the training to do so.”
He shook his head and leaned forward. “Just hear me out, please. Just hear me out. I think you are the one we want. A few months ago a couple came to the restaurant, friends of ours, and they talked about you and that case you’d just won, the woman accused of shooting her husband up on the McKenzie. She’s their landlady and they knew about that case. They said you’d take on the devil himself and beat him.”
Barbara felt her stomach lurch and her heart threaten to implode. She caught her breath and quelled her impulse to jump up and order them out of her house. Her self-imposed isolation fortress had just collapsed.
“Tawna and James Gresham,” Owens continued, “said you were the best lawyer there is and if we ever ran into trouble to tell you about it first. I know what you’ve been doing for folks around this neighborhood. We all know. You listen to them, really listen and help them. That’s what I asking for, Ms. Holloway. Let me tell you about it. Ask for your help.”
She nodded silently.
“It’s a long story,” he said. “First, my part. I was one of six guys from the Giants NFL team. We rented a yacht and went cruising in the Caribbean, stopped here and there, did a little fishing, some snorkeling, drinking, smoking, and were having a blast. The skipper put in at Haiti. We’d heard a lot about it, that it was a hellhole, and some of the guys wanted to see for themselves. We only stayed two days and planned to leave before dawn and some of us went to town, got back late, and turned in. I found her hiding in my stateroom.” He motioned toward Binnie, who nodded.
“She was wet and crying. And trying to tell me she couldn’t talk, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it and started to get the skipper. She caught me and pulled me back and held my sleeve while she looked for a piece of paper. She wrote that she was mute and a man was going to sell her to be a slave. She swam out to the yacht, pulled herself up and on it, and went inside the first door she came to, mine. I hauled out a dry shirt, told her to get herself dried out in the bathroom, and tell me about it. She was a sight in that shirt, I can tell you.”
He paused, looked at Binnie for a long moment with a big smile, then sobered and said, “I didn’t turn her in. I hid her, brought her food, and didn’t say a word. Then, when we got near Miami to dock, the Coast Guard hailed the skipper and ordered everyone on deck. They said they were coming aboard, searching for a kidnapped minor female. I told her to hide in the closet and went on deck with the others, and the Coast Guard guys boarded and searched the whole boat. There wasn’t a trace of her. We were about half a mile offshore and she was gone. I thought she had jumped overboard and drowned.”
Binnie had ducked her head, her hand remaining in his, and he continued to lean forward as if ready to leap up from his chair. Barbara thought that she couldn’t have stopped him from telling the story if she had tried.
“Okay,” he said. “We docked, and the group broke up. We were due to report in another week to start training, and I’d planned to rent a car and drive up to Atlanta to spend a few days with my mother and sister. I got the car, but I didn’t leave Miami Beach. I rented a cabana and spent the next three days driving up and down the coast, reading every local paper there was, watching television news, listening to the radio news. I expected her body to wash up and planned to give her a decent burial at the very least.
“She found me instead,” he said. “She spotted me driving and got the license number and then began checking motel parking lots, hotel lots, whatever she could think of, and she found me. She was starving and dirty. She had swum ashore and had kept out of sight, looking for me. What if I’d left the way I planned? I felt as if it was meant to be, fate, something like that. We were meant to be together. I hid her, and we went to my mother’s place. They fell in love with her, Mama and Adele, my sister. That’s where we were when she showed me a thing she’d worn on a ribbon around her waist from the time she was thirteen or fourteen. Her mother made it for her. A little tube glued shut, watertight. I had to use a hacksaw to open it. There was a tiny scroll inside.”
He released Binnie’s hand, patted it, then said, “Show her the message.”
Binnie looked at Barbara, her big eyes questioning. When Barbara nodded, she reached into the bag at her feet and removed an envelope, extracted a folded paper, and handed it to Barbara.
“It was rolled up so small for years,” he said, “Mama flattened it with an iron. I had it Xeroxed on a regular-size paper and put the original away in a safe. That’s the copy.”
The message was centered on the 8½ × 11–inch paper where it took less than half a page. The writing was very small and neat, almost schoolgirl neat, like a penmanship sample for a test. Barbara read it slowly.
My name is Shala Santos and Lavinia Santos is my daughter. My sister is Anaia. She married an American named Lawrence. I do not know his surname. We are citizens of Belize. I was a passenger on a freighter on my way to my fiancé’s parents in Jamaica and we were attacked by pirates. Every man aboard was murdered, including my betrothed Juan Hernandez. He was Lavinia’s father. Domonic Guteriez took me to Haiti where he held me captive. When he learned that my father was a businessman, he tried to ransom me back to my family. An emissary arrived, but when he discovered that I was pregnant, he declared that I was not the daughter of Augustus Santos, and that Shala Santos had perished at sea. I became a slave to Domonic. When Lavinia was born mute, he grew fearful and believed she was cursed, that a birthmark over her heart was a sign of the curse. I told him that if he harmed her, the curse would punish him severely and he never touched her, and ordered me to keep her hidden away. He never let my daughter leave the house with me for fear I would escape with her. Now I am ill and know I shall die. I write this in order for my daughter to have knowledge of her heritage. I have told her that she must escape alone.
Barbara reread the message even more slowly, then put the paper down on the futon. Both Martin Owens and Binnie were watching her intently. Binnie’s hand was again in his.
“Your mother passed away? Then you swam out to the yacht?”
Binnie nodded, but Martin said in a mean tone he had not used before, “There’s one other little bit to add to that. Domonic was negotiating the sale of my wife to a pimp. He had prostituted her mother and planned to turn Binnie over to a guy who would do the same thing to her. A day or two after her mother died, she heard them bickering over the price. That’s when she ran away.” He kept his voice low, but it was more frightening than it would have been if he had shouted the words.
Binnie pulled her hand loose and touched his arm. When he turned his gaze to her, her hands moved rapidly in what Barbara thought must be American Sign Language. After a moment, he shook his head hard, and she made the same gestures even faster. Barbara had the impression that if her words had been spoken, she would have been shouting.
When he shook his head again, she reached for her bag, and this time pulled out a notebook and pen.
With an agonized expression he put his mammoth hand over hers and said to Barbara, “She wants me to tell you she’ll kill herself before she’ll go back to Haiti.”
Copyright © 2011 by Kate Wilhelm