Authors: Lynn Emery
“Derrick lives this crazy cops and robbers thing working for the DA. I don't know why he wants to get involved in all the mess people make of their lives,” she said.
“His career is truth and justice,” Mama Rose said, her voice firm. “And just as important to him as yours is to you.”
“I know. I shouldn't criticize his choice. He's trying to do what he thinks is right.”
“Derrick is a good man. He's done a lot for our young people. He works with a youth program to keep kids out of gangs.”
Talia crossed her arms. She no longer saw the blue skies or sunshine. “The bottom line is there won't be a storybook ending. But then there never is.”
“You're not Monette, Talia. Just because she made mistakes as a mother doesn't mean you will,” Mama Rose said.
“So did her mother. Her sisters haven't been nominated for parenting awards either. Anyway, let's drop it.” She came back and sat down again.
“Baby, I hate to see you pushing away happiness. Even Monette would tell you the same thing. You haven't repeated her life, not at all. She wants the best for you.”
“I'm glad she's reformed.” Talia crossed her legs. “Instant Mother of the Year. Just add hot water and stir.”
“Stop it. She is still your mother. You have unfinished business, young lady.” Mama Rose's tone deepened.
“No, I don't.” Talia returned her gaze. “I don't hate Monette, Mama Rose, but I don't want her in my life again.”
“Coming to terms with your mother means you need to talk to her.” Mama Rose raised a hand to forestall Talia's protest. “Listen to me. I've lived a few more years than you, so I do know a little something.”
“I said listen,” Mama Rose cut in sternly. When Talia clamped her mouth shut, she continued. “I know she's done a lot of terrible things, but you have to forgive her. You can't move on emotionally until you do.”
“Monette is the queen of getting people to let her off the hook,” Talia said sharply. “She's got all of you feeling sorry for her.”
“Forgiving her doesn't mean you forget what she's done. It's not a magic formula that will make the pain she caused go away. Sure, let Monette know she's accountable for the life she led. I'm not even saying you have to keeping seeing her if you don't want to.” Mama Rose watched Talia closely as silence stretched between them.
“I wouldn't know what to say if I went to see her.” Talia pulled on a tassel at the end of the small throw pillow.
“What is it you're scared of, Talia?”
“I'm not scared.” Talia shook her head hard. “I just don't want one more dramatic scene.”
“You don't want to be let down one more time,” Mama Rose said quietly. “She's hurt you too many times before.”
“Lies. I'm so sick of her lying to me that everything will be alright,” Talia blurted out. “Well, everything didn't turn out right. In fact, life always got worse.”
Talia thought back to her tenth birthday, the turning point, when she started to realize Monette wouldn't change. She'd waited for hours in the visiting room at the bleak child welfare agency office. Dressed in her best dress, she'd looked forward to seeing Monette for weeks. They were supposed to have their own party at the local McDonald's. Her then foster mother, a stern woman named Hattie Gray, had worn an “I told you so” expression. Talia hadn't cared about presents or even ice cream and cake. She'd needed to see her mother. The ride back to Miss Hattie's house had been agonizing.
“You're not a little girl now. She's not in control of your life. You can walk away, go back to D.C.” Mama Rose leaned forward. “The difference is you can feel good that you forgave her. Even if she hasn't changed, you have.”
“No, I haven't!” Talia said. Her throat felt tight with emotion. “Deep down I'm still the little girl that wants her mama to be there for her.”
“The woman in you will have to accept Monette for who she is.” Mama Rose sat back again. “Lord knows I have. You know what a hard case I can be.”
“Yes indeed, Mrs. Travis.” Talia wore a half smile.
“I got to know a lot about Monette from her letters.” Mama Rose cleared her throat. “And the times I visited her at the prison.”
“What did you just say?”
“That's right, I went to the prison.”
“I'm stunned, speechless.” Talia blinked at her in surprised. “You never criticized her in front of me, but I know how you felt about the drugs and the men.”
“If I'm going to spout off about Christian love, then I need to practice what I preach. Monette had a hard life.”
“I know, but that's not an excuse.” Talia frowned.
“She doesn't use it as one. Did you know she was raped when she was seven years old?”
Talia's stomach tightened and she felt ill. “Did Monette tell you that? She's been known to play people.”
“Her oldest sister told me. Monette only made some vague reference to being mistreated as a kid.” Mama Rose sighed. “I suspected as much. I had a lot of training in that area as a foster parent. She had all the signs. The stealing, wild behavior with men, and using drugs.”
“All the more reason she should have protected us,”
Talia argued. Still she felt a sharp stab of sympathy for the seven-year-old Monette.
“Like I said, she has to own up to her mistakes. Still, there's a lot you need to know about her,” Mama Rose said. “Her life didn't just begin when you were born.”
“You're saying I should get to know her past to deal with my own.” Talia glanced at Mama Rose.
“I think knowing more about your mother will help you understand.” Mama Rose stood.
“Maybe so,” Talia said. She stared ahead at the wall, but her thoughts were miles away, at the women's prison.
“I'll make us some lemonade to go with those cheese curls I baked. Then we can look at the movie.” She patted Talia's shoulder as she walked past her to the small kitchen.
Talia grabbed her hand. “You're one special lady, Mama. Now about you coming to live with meâ¦” She looked up at her.
“Forget that,” Mama Rose said promptly. “I'm a warm weather creature. It snows where you live. Besides, I've got my land. Of course you could stay here in my house.”
“If you really need me to stay with you, I will.” Talia held on to her hand.
“I've been thinking I don't need that big house. But it's perfect for a growing family.” Mama Rose's dark eyes twinkled.
“You cut that out!” Talia let go of her hand.
“I'm just sayingâ” Mama Rose wore an innocent expression.
“Yeah, yeah. Go get the lemonade.” Talia got up and turned on the television. She put a tape in the VCR. “I'm not even going there again with you.”
“What is wrong with Rougon? I know it's a little
town, but you're near Baton Rouge. You could do consulting with all kinds of companies.”
Talia stood very still, with her back to Mama Rose. “I can't live with the memories here,” she said.
“Derrick could smooth all those bad memories away. He'd move the world to make you happy.” Mama Rose came back into the living room. “And I'll tell you something elseâ”
She spun around, wearing a forced smile that made her cheeks ache. “Mama, you've given me enough to think about with Monette. Harass me about my love life later, okay?”
Mama Rose opened her mouth, then closed it for a few seconds before she spoke. “You're right, baby. I'm throwing out my opinions like cheap Mardi Gras beads at a parade. You've got enough on your hands for now. I'm making things worse.”
“You're just making me feel loved. Like you've done for the last twenty years.” Talia crossed to Mama Rose and pecked her cheek. “You're precious.”
Mama Rose blushed with pleasure. “Fresh-squeezed lemonade and cheese curls coming up. I can't wait to see that suspense movie.”
“Me too. Just like old times, huh?” Talia felt a flood of warmth at the memory of feeling safe and nurtured as a wounded little girl.
“Just like old times, baby.” Mama Rose hummed a tune as she walked to the kitchen.
Unfinished business, Mama Rose had said. Her foster mother had no idea what she was asking Talia to dredge up. Still, Monette at least owed her some answers. Maybe it was time she faced her fears and her mother. Talia stared at the telephone. She had the phone number to the prison memorized even though she'd never used it.
“Get to know the real Monette,” Talia whispered.
Layers of smoky dark blue, orange, and pink made the horizon look like a beautiful oil painting. Talia and Derrick were on the porch of his small house on False River. They sat on a cypress swing suspended from the ceiling. Neither had spoken for a long time, content to hear only the soft creaking as the swing moved back and forth. A few boats passed by with their motors buzzing like distant giant insects. The evening air smelled of wet earth, a slight scent of fish and grass. An aroma of spices floated from the open door.
“Your specialty smells wonderful.” Talia snuggled into the crook of his arm.
Derrick rubbed his cheek against the top of her head. “I hope the taste lives up to the buildup.”
“I haven't had homemade jambalaya in a long time.” Talia looked up at him with trusting eyes. “Thanks, babe.”
“Wait until you taste it,” Derrick teased.
“I meant for making me feel safe here. You even kept me from stressing over Monette. I know what's going on with you, mister.”
He tensed. “I don't understand.”
“You don't mention my mother or the past. I can concentrate on Mama Rose. And us.” Talia kissed his chin.
His conscience pricked at him for several minutes before he spoke. He'd put off talking to her about the parole hearing far too long.
“I'm going to spoil the hero image.”
Talia laughed. “I don't see how.”
“You will in a few seconds.” Derrick gazed at her when she moved away from him.
Talia wore a serious expression. “So tell me what's up.”
“The parole board meets in about a month. Monette
will be one of the cases they consider.” Derrick rubbed his face hard. “Our office is involved.”
Talia moved farther away. “You're going to help them present evidence that she should stay in prison?”
“Let me explain first,” Derrick said quickly. “Weâ”
“Don't worry,” she cut in. “I think Monette got what she deserved.”
“You can't mean what you just said.” Derrick stared at her in dismay.
“Exactly when do they meet?” Talia said.
“October 21, four weeks to the day.”
“I see.” Talia took both his hands in hers. “I'll be gone by then. But I'm not running from you. We can still be together. There are so many opportunities for you in D.C.”
“One thing at a time, baby girl. First your mother,” Derrick said.
“I've heard more than enough about the power of forgiveness. Don't bother.” Talia stood and walked to the edge of the porch.
“You're running away from Monette. Baby, it's time to stop runningâperiod.”
“I've never told anybody just how bad things were at times,” Talia said in a hushed voice.
Derrick went to Talia and put his arms around her waist. They both watched a bass boat chug along, leaving a wake of white waves behind. Neither spoke for a time.
“You didn't have to tell me. I was there. I saw,” he said finally.
Talia rested against his chest. “That law professor Jim Rand is going to put on an aggressive defense.”
Derrick tightened his embrace. “Winn Barron is planning to get involved, Talia.”
“Why is the attorney general interested?”
“He was the DA who got the conviction. Monette and three others went on trial at the same time.”
She turned to face him without leaving the circle of his arms. “So you've got access to her file.”
He nodded slowly. “Yes.”
“You've read it?”
“I just started reviewing the first sections. It's pretty extensive. I didn't realize the investigation had gone on for over seven months before her arrest. Monette was hanging with rough characters. Andre Louis and Demetrius Nance were pretty big dealers back then. They were partying, taking trips to Florida, and the Caribbean. No doubt making drug connections.”
“I don't want to know,” Talia said quickly.
“Talia, I really think you should at least listen toâ”
“No.” She shook her head until her soft long hair bounced.
“Monette could be innocent. She was arm candy for the dealers, and they probably provided her with cocaine, but I just don't see any evidence she was smuggling drugs or even helping them. What if she's been in prison all these years for a crime she didn't commit?”
“She was on drugs at the time. Everyone knew it. The other guys they caught were her buddies.” Talia frowned. “I remember one of them hanging around the house.”
“Okay, she was on drugs. But she wasn't into drug smuggling,” Derrick insisted. “We both know Monette wasn't selling coke.”
“She was in the car with those guys. They came
back from Florida with cocaine hidden in a cooler stuffed in raw meat.” Talia let out a bitter laugh. “Not exactly the smartest plan.”
“Monette says they picked her up at a nightclub. The Crystal Palace, remember it?” Derrick frowned. “She used to hang out there all the time.”
“Of course I remember that dump. I went there looking for her often enough.”
“Right, so her story makes sense. She didn't know anything about the coke that night. She was just looking to party. They told her they could hook her up after they settled a little business.”
Talia let out a harsh hiss. “She told a lot of versions about how she ended up in the car. Monette wasn't going to admit she knew about the coke.”
“I don't think she did it, Talia. I really don't.” Derrick brushed her hair.
“Wait a minute.” Talia frowned at him. “Damn it, you can't afford to let her pull you into this,” she said low.
“I don't want you to get involved. She's got this big-time law professor working on it.” Talia gripped both his arms. “Stay out of this whole thing with Monette, Derrick.”
He could see fear in her brown eyes. “Larry wants me to prepare a summary for Winn Barron.”
“I don't understand why the attorney general should care.” Talia stared into his eyes. “Just how big was this drug operation?”
“I'm not sure yet, but Barron has political ambitions.”
“I don't give a damn about him. Promise me you'll just give them a summary and nothing else.” Talia tugged on his arms for emphasis. “Please!”
“I want to know the truth, too, Talia.”
“We know the truth where Monette is concerned,”
Talia snapped. “You're safe as long as she's in prison,” she said.
“Oh, baby.” Derrick pulled her into his arms. “Is that what you think?”
“If they dig enough, you don't know what they'll find,” Talia whispered.
His heart turned over at the tremor in her voice. “I've told you not to worry about me. What happened is gone.”
“Unsolved cases are reopened all the time.” Talia gazed at him steadily. “How can you be sure?”
“Earl's disappearance was connected to a drug deal gone bad. He stole money and drugs from a big-time distributor.”
“Tell me you didn't tamper with an investigation.” Talia searched his face anxiously.
“I won't tell you any details, but it's okay.” Derrick tried to sound as reassuring as he could.
Talia shook free of his embrace. “You should have told the police. She did it, not you.”
“I couldn't do that back then any more than I can do it now.” Derrick reached for her.
She dodged his attempt to close the gap between them. “You're into drama just as much as she is!” Talia tossed out the words like an accusation. “Look at what you're doing. A quiet life isn't enough for you, is it?”
“Larry would have known something was strange if I'd refused to read Monette's file. I've prepared reports on old cases over a dozen times since I took the job.” Derrick did not get angry.
“Yes, that job. You could have been a lawyer, anything else. You're smart.” Talia paced. “Instead, you're up to your neck in criminals all day long.”
“I'm not in danger.”
Derrick could smell the fear radiating from her.
Talia wanted to be far away from the kind of street life Monette had inflicted on her.
Talia stopped in front of him. “I can't live like that anymore, Derrick. I
live like that.”
“Come here,” Derrick said quietly. He held out his arms. “Talia, please.”
She went to him slowly, as if afraid of him. Derrick put his arms around her again, but loosely. He wanted her to know he would not force her into anything. Talia let go of a ragged sigh and rested her head on his shoulder. Dusk had fallen, and the sound of insects in the night seemed oddly comforting to him. He rocked her and softly hummed a Creole tune, his lips close to her ear. It was a song of love they'd often danced to years ago.
“I feel like a terrible monster is waiting behind every tree, every bush,” Talia whispered.
“We can love it away.”
Derrick kissed her forehead, her cheeks, and her lips as if to prove his words. Talia squeezed her arms around his waist as if begging to be convinced. He took her hand and led her inside to his bedroom.
“The food will burn. We'd betterâ” Talia started for the kitchen.
“The slow cooker will keep dinner for us.”
Derrick sank onto the queen-size bed. Talia looked into his eyes as she lifted her long, full denim skirt. She straddled his lap. Derrick rubbed his face against the red sweater she wore, relishing the full breasts beneath the fabric. His hands eased under it to caress the smooth skin of her midsection. They kissed long and hard.
“Touch me here,” she whispered as she guided his hand.
Derrick cupped her breast, his thumb rubbing the
hard nub. Talia whimpered sweet and low in the back of her throat until he could feel the vibration in her body. He found the front hook of her red bra and pushed it aside. She lifted her arms so he could pull the sweater over her head. His tongue circled each nipple.
Their lovemaking started slowly, building like a fire that had smoldered for hours. Talia kissed his neck and shoulders until Derrick thought he would explode. They undressed each other in stages. Wearing only silk bikini panties, Talia rubbed against his erection.
“Baby, baby, baby.” She sighed.
Derrick pushed aside the filmy fabric. She lifted her hips and lowered herself onto him. He lay back on the bed, both palms flat against her breasts. Now that they were joined, the slow rhythm gave way to urgent need. Talia rolled and rocked him until Derrick lost touch with every other sensation. Nothing else mattered except holding on to her forever. His head filled with words that he wanted to say but couldn't. A slow, all-consuming heat pounded through him. Warm, pulsating flesh lifted him up to heaven until his entire body stiffened. Talia came and pulled Derrick over the edge into a powerful orgasm moments later. They thrashed against each other, frantic to grab every ounce of pleasure they could. Both groaned as they came to rest finally.
Talia went limp across his body. “Derrick,” she whispered.
“I know, baby. I know.”
Each time they touched, his responsibility tripled to make all his words of reassurance come true.
“Good to see the old place, Larry.”
Winn Barron strode forward with his hand out. Derrick took a good look at the man he'd only seen in
newspaper photos. Just over six feet tall, his brawny body had turned soft around the middle. His brown hair was styled and combed back. He still had the polished good looks that had carried him through two election campaigns.
“Made a few changes, Winn.” Larry grinned and shook his hand firmly. “We got the budget to redecorate and upgrade our technology.”
“You were the right man to take this office into the twenty-first century.” Winn glanced around. “I see you've got new staff. Put my old standbys like Jerry Hines out to pasture, eh?”
“Mrs. Jenkins retired six months after you did. I don't think she was very impressed with me.” Larry laughed. “Come on in, buddy.” He slapped Winn on the shoulder and ushered him into his office.
“Humph! Thank goodness that old hen retired. I didn't think I'd ever get promoted,” Kelsey said once the door closed.
“Before my time,” Derrick murmured. He stared at the closed door.
“Be grateful. We used to call her a few choice names at least once a day.” Kelsey gave a wicked laugh. “There's a darn good reason I'm the only staff left from those days.”
“Really?” Cheryl forgot about typing and turned from her computer.
“I started the same year Larry first got elected. Mrs. Jenkins was seventy-two, and the others weren't that much younger.” Kelsey shook her head. “They squealed like stuck pigs when Larry mentioned computers.”
“I heard most of them were relatives of Barron's pals,” Cheryl said in a low voice.
“Half the time they didn't know what the heck they were doing.” Kelsey rolled her eyes.
“You're a mess, Kelsey.” Cheryl chuckled as she turned back to her work.
“Hey, I tell it like it is, sugar.”
The women continued to share gossip about the office under Winn Barron. Derrick paid close attention while he reviewed notes of two interviews he'd conducted the day before. Using one finger, he tapped the keyboard of the computer on his desk, adding comments. His ability to catch details while doing another task served him well once more. Winn Barron had a fondness for flirting and liked to milk the old boy network. Kelsey joked that he could keep one hand on the telephone and the other on his secretary's rear end.
“Sounds like this was a more colorful place to work back in those days,” Derrick said casually. He pressed the key to print pages.
“Colorful is right. Iâ” Kelsey broke off when Larry's door opened again.
“Derrick, step in here a minute,” Larry called out.
“Sure,” he said.
Winn Barron sat in one of the large leather chairs. He looked in charge even though the office was no longer his. Up close, Derrick, noticed the unhealthy flush to his wide face. Barron had the red skin and large pores of a heavy drinker. His breathing was audible. Derrick smelled the faint odor of cigar tobacco when they shook hands.
“The best investigator we've ever had, Winn. Derrick Guillory,” Larry said. He sat down at his desk and rocked his chair.
“Hello, sir.” Derrick stood to the right of Larry's desk near the window.
“You must be good. Larry is damn hard to please.” Winn gave a curt nod. “You from around here?”
“My family moved from Lakeland to Rougon when I was seven.”
“Sit down, son.” Winn slapped the arm of the chair next to him. “You're tall, and I'm going to get tired looking up. Played basketball I'll bet.”
Derrick pushed down his gut reaction of irritation. “Yes.”
“Got a scholarship, too. Right?” Winn wore a faint smile.
“What did you do after your eligibility ended?” Winn glanced at him.
“Got my degree and left,” Derrick replied in bland voice.
“Derrick wasn't just another jock. He actually studied,” Larry put in.
“Humph, that's the exception for those kids.” Winn looked at him with a bit more interest before he turned back to Larry.
Derrick knew what he meant.
Derrick thought as he watched him. Here was a member of the Southern gentry used to getting what he wanted.
“How are things in Baton Rouge?” Larry said. He tilted his chair.
“That damn woman!” Winn's thick eyebrows formed a straight line above his watery brown eyes.
“Remember your blood pressure.” Larry pursed his lips in amusement. “She's doing her job as chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee C.”
“Like hell! Eloise Bertrand just likes pushing my buttons,” Winn thundered. “Senator Jackson has hired some smart-assed consultant out of Washington. I can't believe you buy into their crap.”