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That Thursday in early September billowed up blue and white, as breezy and innocent as a picnic, the air filtering through shimmering sunlit leaves. But during the afternoon, the true Sierra atmosphere showed its face in a ferocious summer storm, ruthless, unpredictable, and dangerous.
And because the storm dislocated all sorts of human arrangements that night, or because life is a mist of error, or perhaps just because she had been working too hard and couldn't deal with one more thing that day, Nina Reilly made a small, critical mistake that changed everything.
The day began at eight-thirty sharp with the Cruz custody hearing, now in its second day and going fine, if anything could be fine about a family splitting up. Lisa Cruz, Kevin's wife, took the stand, and she loved their two kids, no doubt about that, but she had some very strange ideas, too.
"I'm a full-time mom and a professional with a deep spiritual side," she said from the witness box, gazing at Jeffrey Riesner with large, earnest, liquid eyes that seemed to beg for further help. "I depend on the great philosophers for guidance."
Kevin began an astringent, whispered commentary. "Moving right along from Jim Beam, to pills, to marathons, and onward into religion," he muttered.
Lisa had a pale, heart-shaped face and a tentative, breathy voice. She wore a structured jacket and creased slacks and looked fragile, but Kevin had told Nina that Lisa could run five miles without breaking a sweat; had no compunctions about kicking him when he was down; had an extensive, X-rated vocabulary; and bore unswerving allegiance to nothing and no one except their kids.
Lisa adjusted her body, as she had frequently during Riesner's questions, raising one leg over another, then deciding against it. She was not a woman who enjoyed sitting still. "I studied philosophy at the community college," she said.
"She took one course, and quit before the final," Kevin whispered to Nina.
"I consider myself a truth-seeker and scholar. Of course, I work hard to impart the right values to my children: hard work, healthy diet, goal-setting." She had a lot to say about vitamins.
More whispering. "She'd use a cattle prod if she thought she could get away with it. She's fanatic about physical fitness. Those kids don't get a moment's peace, between the death marches up and down mountains and the bogus mind crap she feeds them." Kevin had arrived at court very emotional, as always. Nina had to watch out for him when she should have been giving all her energies to watching Jeffrey Riesner, the attorney representing Lisa. She shook her head sharply, her eyes closed, and Kevin understood and stopped.
Nina and Riesner went way back, but not to good places. They had a long history of conflict, which had begun almost the day she had arrived in the town of South Lake Tahoe and set up an office as a sole practitioner. A partner in Tahoe's most prestigious law firm, Caplan, Stamp, Powell, and Riesner, he viewed her as an out-of-town upstart who had barged into his territory and seduced away several good felony defendants. Nina saw him as a relentless greedhead who held grudges and hated women, her in particular.
She watched him playing Lisa now, playing the judge, playing the court, as homey in a courtroom as you could be without moving in a couch and pillows. How he warmed their hearts with little stories of Lisa's generosity and kindness. The smallest smile was calculated, a warm nod to the judge, practiced. She could never understand his reputation for success in the courtroom. Apparently, judges and juries could not see through the tall, smooth-talking, Armani-clad exterior to his squirming, wormy insides.
Under Riesner's careful handling, Lisa went on for quite some time, modestly recounting her achievements as a parent and a volunteer firefighter with several exciting stories to tell. Slowly, Riesner built up his Wonder Woman. Her mother, who lived nearby, watched the children for her during fire emergencies, when volunteers were called out. She attended church, raised money for good causes, met with teachers for conferences, and loved her children.
What interested Nina most was not what she said, though, but how, whenever Lisa started to show real emotion by raising her voice or letting a little vehemence enter, Riesner gently steered her back to calm, like a fairy-tale hero sparing her the scary, dark woods. After several minutes, having wrung all the good he could from his client, he turned back to his table and sat down, but not without first casting a victorious sneer Nina's way.
Nina stood. She had thought a long time about how to cross-examine Kevin's wife. Lisa wasn't a bad mother, just as Kevin wasn't a bad father, but both parents couldn't have the children. Many had tried to split custody, and the only parents who succeeded were parents who respected and liked each other after the divorce. Lisa and Kevin didn't like each other anymore.
Emotional volatility was Lisa's weakness. She sat in the box, hands neatly folded, like a female Buddha. Nina needed to get around that pseudoserenity.
"Mrs. Cruz, you describe yourself as a seeker," Nina said. "Could you tell us a little more about what you mean by that?"
Riesner cleared his throat, considering an objection, probably. The phlegm went no farther than his esophagus and lodged there, to judge from its sudden halt. He didn't like the question, but must have decided to let it ride.
"Well," Lisa said, any ease she had developed during Riesner's questioning now gone. She hesitated, tongue-tied, staring at Nina with a half-fascinated, half-repulsed expression on her face, drumming her fingers on the rail in front of her.
"Mrs. Cruz?" Nina said.
Lisa finally spoke, although the words sounded forced. "Life has a deeper meaning than justthis," she said.
A few observers in the audience looked around the earth-toned, windowless courtroom and chuckled.
"I don't mean just this moment," she said defensively, "although every moment is significant. And this one certainly is, since it involves the future well-being of my children. But to answer your question more broadly, I would say I'm interested in the big picture. Taking responsibility for your actions. Accepting blame when you do wrong." Flat brown eyes followed Nina's every move as if she expected Nina to jump her at any moment.
"You are a religious person, I understand."
"Yes," she said.
"You take your children to church every Sunday?"
"I understand your religion forbids blood transfusions?" Nina asked.
"I haven't lost my senses just because I joined my church," Lisa said. "I'm open to advice from conventional medical doctors, and would take Kevin's wishes into consideration even after our divorce is final, as I always have before. You know, I don't limit myself when it comes to a personal philosophy to live by. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how we should live as well as why we live and I've drawn some conclusions."
Lisa sat back in her chair, considering the question seriously. "Oh, there's a level we operate on in this countryhey, I'm not knocking anyone else, okay? But I don't want my life bogged down by trivia and reduced to a long series of tasks to be done. I try to keep my life spiritual, focused, and tranquil."
Nina knew Lisa had balked and complained bitterly for years about the changes in her life since having children. She had no more time for her personal pursuits, felt limited in her important volunteer work, and unduly burdened by the dragging weight of child rearing. Some of Kevin's resentments percolated around his wife's stubborn refusal to contribute to the normal running of their household.
"You have two children," Nina said. "Surely there are many chores that need to be done? Surely there is a great deal of trivia?"
"Of course. Children make messes. That's their job."
"And tranquility isn't really a normal state of affairs in a young family, is it?"
"No. Tranquility is an aspiration. It doesn't come easy."
"Isn't one of the big surprises about becoming a parent finding out how little we control the dynamic in the household and how quickly the most basic things can get out of control?"
"I've adjusted," Lisa answered dryly, understanding the direction Nina was taking. "Of course I do chores. Big ones, little ones. Petty ones. Many, many chores."
"You make sure your children have clean clothing?"
"You have a regular laundry day?"
"I do it when the basket is full."
"Whenever the basket is full?"
Lisa had begun to fidget. The questions about her domestic routine bored her. "Yeah, whenever," she said, looking at Riesner, who treated her to some serious eyebrow action. "Because what's the difference if I do it on Monday or Friday as long as it gets done eventually? You know, people don't realize how they try to re-create Victorian standards of living without the kind of help people had then. Yes, our standard of living is higher than ever, but just because you have a dishwasher, does every dish need to be done that minute? Just because you have a vacuum, should you be expected to vacuum every day?"
" 'Eventually' you do the laundry?" Nina persisted. "Would that be once a week or twice a week?"
Lisa rolled her eyes. "Probably once every two weeks, if you were to average it out."
"Do you feed your children regularly?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Of course I feed them regularly."
"How would you define the term regular?"
"Well, breakfast, lunch, and dinner," she said, lips curling with disdain at this truly degraded level of conversation. "Am I missing anything? Oh, yes. Snacks after school."
"What did you make them for breakfast this morning?"
She shifted in her chair. "This morning I was in a rush. Look, Joey and Heather are seven and nine, plenty old enough to get themselves cereal. The days of a home-cooked breakfast are pretty much gone."
"Why is that, Mrs. Cruz?" Nina asked.
"Who has time?"
"Do you like to cook?"
"I wouldn't say it's my favorite thing, but I know how to put together a healthy meal."
"Your petition says you are at home full time, except during fire emergencies, because your children are young and need you there."
"What did they eat for breakfast this morning, Mrs. Cruz?"
"Do you know?"
"No. Although they ate for sure. There were dirty dishes in the sink."
"Did they get up before you?"
"No. I'm the first one up. I run in the mornings."
"You always run in the morning?"
"You don't make them breakfast."
"Not when I run." Again she adjusted herself in her chair, found a position, changed it, and frowned.
Nina had never seen a witness so ill-suited to spending a long time idle, although her excessive energy might serve her well as a mother and in her work, Nina had to admit. "Did your husband make breakfast for the children when he was still living with you?"
"Sometimes, I guess."
"Isn't it true he always made breakfast?"
She sighed. "You know, I'm a mother, but I'm also a professional who needs to stay fit and strong for my work as a firefighter. I'm in the business of saving lives." She glared at Nina. "I don't think it hurts my children to get a meal for themselves once in a while. And low-sugar cereal with milk is a fine, healthy breakfast for children, anyone can tell you that.
"I only put in five miles. Half the time they don't even know I'm gone. And my mom lives really close."
"And when you come back from the run, you take a shower?" Nina was reading from the deposition of Lisa Cruz taken some months before.
"So what if I do?"
"Who dressed the children for school? When you and Kevin were still together?"
"Kevin basically got them off to school. Okay? I have to run."
"Who gets them off to school now? Now that Kevin isn't around?"
"They're older now. Jeans, T-shirt, grab their books, out the door. They don't need me."
"And after school?"
"My mother. I told you. I spend every single evening with them."
"Except, let's see, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday all day."
"Those are my prayer-meeting evenings."
"Mrs. Cruz, how often do you do your housecleaning?"
"Regularly," Lisa Cruz said, mocking Nina's earlier line of questioning, this time enjoying the reaction she got.
Nina laughed along with Judge Milne, dropped her smile, and repeated her question.
But as time went on, as Nina continued grinding at life's petty concerns until the small issues had been hammered to dust, the atmosphere of the courtroom changed. Lisa didn't care about the trivial details of her children's lives, however much she cared about their salvation. She got bored. Her answers became careless. Her composure slipped into irritation.
The judge listened to the boring, trivial questions, the fidgety answers, giving no clue about his thoughts. Riesner objected as often as he could, but Nina's questions, while mind-numbing, were relevant to Lisa's mothering skills, so Judge Milne continually ruled against him. Lisa looked to Riesner for help, squeezed her lips tightly, and exposed an utter lack of interest in or skill at house-keeping, a preference for her own needs over her children's needs when it came to school activities, a chronic inability to pick the children up on time after school, lack of knowledge about her children's current schoolwork, and adamant opposition to any organized sports for her son, Joey, who really, really wanted to play soccer.
After nearly an hour spent on trivia, petty concerns, and the most mundane, rude mechanics of life, including toilet-scrubbing, Lisa was visibly fuming. Her hair had unpoufed and her crisp suit jacket looked wilted. Five miles couldn't make her sweat, but Nina's long journey through life's ordinariness had worn her to a frazzle.
"I'm good in the ways that matter," Lisa said in answer to a question about Joey. "I care about helping my kids grow up right."
"Does that include punishment when they do wrong?"
"I discipline them, of course." Nina heard tightness in her voice.
"What methods of discipline do you use?"
"That depends on what they do. How bad they've been. Like, say they talk back or use bad language, well, I might explain that's not allowed, that we respect each other and I must be respected as a parent. Then I might send them to their rooms."
"You don't like them to use bad language?"
"You don't use bad language?"
"I don't condone it, no."
"You don't use it?"
She had to answer honestly or risk impeachment, although her reluctance was palpable. "Very rarely. It's a poor way to communicate."
"Do you spank your children?"
"You don't 'smack them on the butt'?" Nina asked, quoting from the deposition.
Lisa remembered what she had said. She answered carefully. "Rarely, and only if they intentionally disobeyed me in some major way. Crossed the street without me, or did something dangerous. But never hard, never to cause pain. Only to get their attention."