It was six hours later when Elizabeth drove to the airport to pick up Pam. I offered to go but Saturday nights were Daddy-Daughter nights at the Wallace/Vargas-Wallace household. Lauren and Lauren took to one another like two peas in a pod (or two Laurens in a living room, I guess) and before a few minutes had passed the duo was lying side-by-side on the carpet coloring socks to make puppets.
My Lauren put her head on the older girl's lap midway through The Lion King and fell asleep. It was so cute I had to get a picture because I didn't believe it myself. Seven years earlier, it was how the older Lauren fell asleep many nights, only it was her head resting on my leg. The elder Lauren must have been recalling the same thing, because the tear rolling down her cheek mirrored the one rolling down mine.
The idyllic scene was interrupted when Pam and Elizabeth entered the house a few minutes later, but Lauren gently lifted the little girl's head and replaced her leg with a pillow before racing off to hug her mother. I could hear Lauren and Pam talking animatedly as I carried my daughter to bed, and I decided that today had gone on long enough and I didn't want to face the prospect of dealing with Pam. I know it was a cowardly thing to do, but I left Elizabeth to deal with her and to figure out where everyone was going to sleep. I wandered to my bedroom and fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Sunday morning began as Saturday night had ended – with me alone in bed and the sound of loud voices somewhere in the house. It wasn't exactly the way I enjoy waking up and I'm pretty much a bastard in the mornings anyway. I located the source of the noise pretty quickly – Pam, the elder Lauren and Elizabeth were locked in a heated exchange in the living room.
"Enough, God damn it," I said loudly enough to be heard over the din. "I'll be damned if this shit is going to go on for a minute longer. Whatever the hell you three idiots are yelling about is either going to have to wait until you calm down or end now."
Three faces turned toward me quickly, a different expression on each. Elizabeth looked positively pissed, mostly because I yelled only about twice a year and never at her; Lauren looked surprised to see me standing in the doorway in a T-shirt and shorts; and Pam looked frightened as if I was ready to race across the room and throttle her. But at least they were quiet.
"Better," I said calmly. "Much better. Now, would we care to explain why the raised voices?"
All three started at once, but stopped when they saw the look on my face.
"Elizabeth, why don't you go first?" I said after a deep breath.
"Pam doesn't seem to understand that Lauren is unable to leave the property," she told me in a harsh tone directed toward me. "I've explained it just about every way I know how, but I can't seem to get it across to her that Lauren must stay here as long as it takes."
"Well, Elizabeth, that's not entirely true," I said and Pam looked triumphant. "Lauren has the option of spending the next few months in a jail cell if her mother prefers. And just so you know, Pam, if you attempt to take her off the property, I'll drag her back to the juvenile detention center myself. Elizabeth put a lot on the line to get her out of there yesterday so don't you dare screw with me on this.
"Lauren, what is your beef?"
Lauren took a gulp before speaking, glancing first at her mother, then at Elizabeth before settling her eyes on me.
"Mom and Elizabeth keep asking me questions about what happened," she said. "Finally I just told them both to shut up and leave me alone and that you told me not to talk to anyone."
I explained to my wife and Lauren's mother that I didn't want Lauren to answer any questions until I posed them. After I was done talking to her, both Elizabeth and Pam would get the opportunity to ask anything I might have missed, but not before. That didn't go well with either party, but Lauren looked pleased.
"Now, Pam, may I address your concerns?" I asked in a level tone.
"I don't like any of this," she snarled. "I'm her mother and I get to decide where she lives. You didn't ask my opinion on what should be done, you just did it. I don't have any way to pay for your legal services and I refuse to freeload at your house. I'll lose my job if I stay here for very long but I'm not leaving without Lauren. Now your wife tells me it might be as long as a year before this gets resolved. What am I supposed to do? Can you address that for me?"
The only thing that kept me from losing my temper was a little hand tugging on my leg.
"I want pancakes, Daddy," my daughter said.
The older Lauren swooped over and picked up my little Princess and carried her to the kitchen.
"How about I make you some pancakes this morning, small fry," she said. "I like mine with jelly on them. How do you like yours?"
As the two Laurens headed off to fix breakfast I sat heavily on the couch.
"Pam, none of us like this," I told her, already weary. "It's the only thing we could do. The DA wanted her held without bail. The report said the cops found a hell of a lot of drugs in her backpack. It was here or in juvie. We could refuse to waive the 180-day rule, but that's still six months before they have to bring her to trial. And we still have to figure out what really happened and why she was in a park with a bag full of heroin.
"I heard you arguing last night and I don't care what you think. I'm positive Biff is mixed up in this somehow. You don't just desert your 14-year-old kid if you've got nothing to hide. As far as staying or going, that's up to you. Lauren can't leave here unless it's to court or a doctor's appointment. I'd hate to do it, but before I let my wife's reputation be ruined by your attitude, I'll put Lauren back in a cell. Like it or not, Elizabeth and I have temporary custody of her. If you try to take her from here, I'll have to inform the judge and you might end up in a cell similar to your daughter's. We have plenty of room here for you and Lauren can stay and you can do whatever."
Elizabeth finally spoke again, this time in a much calmer voice.
"Pam, Ben told you he doesn't take drug cases," she said. "I prosecute drug dealers; I don't defend them. So there is no way either of us can charge you a fee for cases we don't handle. Ben thinks the world of your daughter. There's no charge for helping out a friend."
Pam headed into the kitchen – seemingly mollified for a moment – to help the girls with breakfast, but Elizabeth motioned for me to stay back.
"If you ever raise your voice like that to me again," she said with a smile, "I'll cut your balls off while you sleep."
My wife had always professed to having affection for my lower anatomy, so I suspected it was an idle threat. But it seemed like a chance I shouldn't really take.
After breakfast Elizabeth's mother came to collect her granddaughter again. I hate to spend time away from my daughter for any reason but especially on weekends. Weekends have always been set aside for time with my family.
We didn't have that luxury today and what we had to discuss that day wasn't exactly fodder for a three-year old. Additionally I needed Pam and Elizabeth to sit in on my interview with Lauren because each of them would have a different perception of what she said. Grandma's house seemed the best place for my Lauren to be.
Everyone headed into the home office Elizabeth and I share but I pulled Lauren aside before she entered.
"I'm going to be blunt with you," I said. "You're in an adult situation so I'm going to treat you like an adult. If you don't tell me the absolute truth you're going to find yourself in another adult situation pretty quickly. And believe me when I tell you the other people there will treat you more like an adult than you've ever wanted. Understand?"
Lauren had looked at the floor when I mentioned the truth but she gamely met my eyes.
"I understand," she said, but I still had my doubts.
I started out the session by having Pam sign two legal contracts – one for my services and one to assure Elizabeth's silence – before asking Lauren to tell me in her own words what had happened.
I had a pretty good opinion formed but I wanted to see what she had to say before we started to ask questions.
Lauren said the trip was like it had been for the last two or three years. Biff would spend the days meeting people while Lauren stayed around the hotel. The day she was arrested Biff had told the girl she needed to clear out of the room for a few hours. This happened once or twice each time they came down.
At first Lauren assumed it was because Biff was holing up with a woman but as she grew older she realized from his behavior when she returned that it was something else.
"He was always wired when I'd get back," she said. "Most evenings he would take me out to dinner or something. But after the meetings he'd pace around the room before finally leaving the hotel by himself. He usually was passed out the next morning when I woke up."
Lauren's statement fit with my theory.
"How often did you carry drugs for him?" I asked and Pam gasped.
"She would never... , " she started but I cut her off.
"Lauren, answer the question," I said firmly. "I need to know how deeply you're involved in this."
Lauren looked at the desk.
"He started to have me carry the backpack to the park last year," she said. "I honestly didn't know it was drugs. But I knew it was something bad. I left the pack by one of the swings while I went to play and when I came back it was gone and another was there.
"The first time we did that it was at a pool. I put a backpack by one of the chairs and then went swimming. I noticed the backpack was a little different when I got back to the chair but I didn't open it.
"Dad was weird that morning. He insisted I take a backpack with me. He said it had sunscreen and things like that in it. I told him I had my shoulder bag but he insisted. He got really nervous and sorta mad.
"He told me the stuff I'd need was in the front pocket and to just take it. I didn't think much about it until I saw a tiny lock on the zippers. Then I knew something wasn't right. The new backpack had a lock on the zippers, too. So I couldn't look inside."
Pam was aghast and Elizabeth had a look of stony disbelief on her face. I was bouncing between rage and sadness – rage at the situation Lauren found herself in and sadness that I hadn't killed Biff Wells when I'd had the chance.
"Lauren, this is very important," I said. "Did you at any time touch the backpack they found in the park?"
Lauren thought for a minute.
"I don't know," she said. "I carried a backpack over but I'm not sure if the one they found was the new one or the old one."
I told her I was almost certain, given the content, that it was a new one.
"Then no," she said. "If it wasn't the one I carried over, there is no way I touched it."
Elizabeth's face cleared up a little and I shot her a pointed glance. She was off in a hurry to draft a motion asking for discovery before the preliminary hearing that was scheduled in three days.
It was an unusual move for the defense, but one I thought we could get away with in this case. It would bite me in the ass if the case ever went to trial but I thought that was unlikely.
I waited for Elizabeth to return before delving further.
"What was your itinerary?" I asked. "Where had you been and where were you supposed to go?"
Lauren told us they'd spent a day near the beach before driving cross-state. It was only their fourth day in state when she was picked up.
"We were supposed to be here all weekend," she said. "Dad was planning a trip to go fishing and we were driving home Wednesday."
The facts lent more credence to my theory but I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed anything so I turned the floor over to Elizabeth who pulled out her laptop computer.
"I want you to see if you recognize any of these people," Elizabeth said. "It will give us a better idea of where your Dad might have gone. Did you see many of the people your Dad met with? Were they white, black, Hispanic?"
Lauren told Elizabeth that it varied. In our area almost all the people her father brought over were black.
"I always thought it was weird because Dad hates black people," she said quietly. "He hates Mexicans, too, but he visited with a bunch of them one day. The next day it was mostly white kids, college guy types."
A slideshow started with a variety of black faces across the screen. I recognized them as mugshots. Lauren sat for a few minutes before she asked to see one of the pictures again.
"This guy," she said. "He's smaller now but I've seen him. He has three tattoos of teardrops under his eye and a bunch of crosses tattooed on his arms. We saw him not this year but last year. He met us at the amusement park."
Biff Wells was in business with Desmond "Tiny" Huntley. The teardrop tattoos represented the people he'd killed to get into his gang and the crosses on his arms were the number of people he'd killed or had killed since becoming its leader.
This was one dangerous dude.
I looked across at my wife who was shaking her head sadly but she didn't speak.
Pam noticed the silence in an instant.
"What's wrong?" she asked hurriedly. "Did she do something wrong? Did she pick out the wrong guy?"
Elizabeth glanced at me and shrugged.
"She picked out the wrong guy, all right," I said. "The guy your idiot of an ex-husband is doing business with is one of the most notorious drug dealers in this area. He's been arrested, what Elizabeth, maybe 30 times. He's only been convicted once – on a misdemeanor possession charge – because witnesses disappear and informants wind up dead.
"How does a half-assed moron like Biff Wells get involved with a big-time drug dealer?" I asked no one in particular.
No one was exactly who answered, too.
I hoped to God I could find Biff and force the truth out of him before I fed him to the alligators.
Pam agreed to disagree – with everyone – about the living arrangements. She was barely making do on her teacher's aide salary but she couldn't justify quitting and leaving the only place she had ever lived.
Her daughter informed her early on that she was staying to face the music.
"I haven't done anything wrong," she said – a point I had a few issues with. "I'm not going to run away and hide. Trey and Elizabeth will help me. I know they will."
I had sincere hopes that the charges would be dropped at the preliminary hearing. The initial report from the fingerprint analysis showed no prints on the bag – not a huge surprise since it was made of a woven material. And regardless of what CSI: Miami might lead you to believe, there are some things it is simply too difficult to get prints from to fool with. The cost is prohibitive. And the crime lab doesn't run a full spectrum of tests on every piece of lint found in a person's pocket, either.
But while there were no prints on the bag itself, interestingly there was a usable latent on the inside flap of one of the plastic bags used to store the drugs. It came back to a two-time loser named Phillip Ostrander who, coincidentally, was already in jail when we found out. Mr. Ostrander, it seemed, had a penchant for losing bar fights and then taking out his frustration on inanimate objects, such as car windows and stop signs. Go figure.
The upshot is, the man whose print was the only lead we had was sitting in County lock up waiting arraignment for destruction of property charges. Lauren Wells recognized him as someone who had been around the hotel but she hadn't seen her dad talking to him.
My wife was the face you see on TV when they announce the seizure of huge drug shipments. There were very few in the drug business who wouldn't recognize my wife's face. For many of them, my wife was the last face they saw before being led off in irons for a lengthy prison stay. In fact, Phillip Ostrander had just that experience six years prior.
So when they pulled him out of the chow line and put him in a room with Elizabeth Vargas-Wallace and some guy he didn't know, Mr. Ostrander about pissed in his pants. He knew his next drug crime would be his Third Strike and he was looking at 25 years to life behind bars.
The twitchy little man fidgeted nervously as Elizabeth sat silently across the table from him. I just stood in the background and tried to look menacing. It must have worked because before Elizabeth could utter a syllable, Ostrander was trying to cut a deal.
"It was a set up," he said. "Those guys had been stealing from, uh, the Boss for months. They had it coming."
Elizabeth turned her head toward me and grimaced. If she was thinking as I was it was something along the lines of "What the fuck is he talking about."
"Wrong answer," she said. "Let me just say up front that I have your print on almost a kilo of heroin seized from a park last week. So I'm going to say a name and you're going to tell me all you know."
Ostrander was scared of my wife but he wasn't dumb enough to be less scared of Tiny. Elizabeth might lock him up and throw away the key but Tiny had been known to – allegedly, of course – torture his victims for days before allowing them to die. It was rumored that his favored way to extract vengeance was the fabled "Death by a Thousand Cuts." Not a pretty way to go and Ostrander knew it.
"No way," he said. "You put me away but I ain't sayin' a word about no one I work for."
Elizabeth smiled prettily.
"I don't give a fuck about Desmond Huntley," she said. "Right now, at least. I'll work my way up to him. The name I have in mind is Biff Wells."