It was snowing and 12 degrees when we flew into the airport in the town where Pam and Lauren lived. It had been close to 60 and sunny when we left our city five hours earlier. Two state troopers would meet us near Pam's house to perform the arrest. We would have to extradite her to our state to face charges but no one thought it would pose much of a problem.
The week between our meeting in Judge Valasik's chambers had seen my life return to an even keel. The four of us put our heads together and decided it was too dangerous for Elizabeth to pursue Wallace Mann openly. To that end, Judge Valasik had enlisted the help of Jane's former investigator to assist my research.
I was correct in my assessment of the number of latent fingerprints lifted from the hotel room where Biff Wells was killed. It number more than 200 unique sets. But Pam was a teacher's aide and had her fingerprints in the federal database. We secured permission for a search and were able to get a 17-point match. It confirmed that she was in the hotel room at some point. Coupled with the video and the traffic camera footage, it was enough for Judge Castille, who was acting as senior judge until the feds swooped in, to issue an arrest warrant. He also issued a warrant for Wallace Mann's cell phone provider and authorized Mark Strickland to secure a call log from Mann's county-provided phone "by any means necessary."
It took some doing but Mark located a call to a phone that traced back to Biff Wells by cross-referencing Mann's logs against those from Pam and Lauren Wells. That still didn't tie Mann to the murder. We would need Pam's testimony for that.
To that end, I accompanied Elizabeth on the journey. Little Lauren was safely ensconced at her grandparents' house with some of her grandfather's former colleagues providing protection. Elizabeth had not mentioned where she was going, instead opting to tell everyone at her office that she was taking some personal time because she and I were having marital problems.
That was true enough. I still sometimes wondered how much of Elizabeth's actions had been predicated on what she wanted to do and how much was predicated on what she thought she should want to do.
She planned to offer her resignation from the prosecutor's office after the first of the year. Judge Valasik had managed to do what I hadn't: convince Elizabeth that her career as a prosecutor probably wouldn't survive the scandal that was about to come down. No one was naïve enough to think that the investigation would take anything less than a year.
I suggested that we pack up and take a long vacation but Elizabeth had thrown an additional problem into the mix. I was reluctant but eventually I agreed to what she proposed. It was another reason I was along.
Elizabeth and I sat down the block and watched Lauren exit her school bus and walk to the apartment she shared with her mother. I knew from conversations with Lauren since her visit that she was home alone for an hour or so after school because her mother had bus duties. We sat in the car for a few more minutes before exiting and walking up the stairs and knocking on the door.
I had to smile when I saw how careful Lauren was. She didn't open the door or even look through the peephole. Instead I saw a curtain move on a room beside the porch. Seconds later I heard feet scampering though the house and the door flew open.
"Trey!" she said, giving me a hug. I felt better about the decision as soon as I saw her. She wasn't dressed like a miniature hooker. In fact, her attire more resembled my wife's than her mother's. She wore a knee-length skirt and a green sweater over a white blouse. Gone were the painted on denim shorts and tight tank tops she had brought with her on her final trip with her father. She wore no makeup and the large hoop earrings I had seen in her jail belongings had been replaced with simple studs. All in all, she looked like a wholesome teenage girl.
She released me and gave my wife the same treatment as I'd received before ushering us inside.
"I can't believe you're here!" she said. "Is Lauren Two with you? I've really missed her."
"We had to leave her at home," I said. "We're actually here on business."
Elizabeth and I had debated – OK, we'd argued – about how to proceed. Elizabeth suggested we shouldn't tell Lauren the whole truth unless it became necessary. I fought against the idea, pointing out that the girl had been through enough in the past few months that she had to have grown up. I thought she deserved to know everything that I knew – and I was prepared to do it even if Elizabeth didn't agree.
I suppose I had grown a backbone over the previous few weeks, at least where my wife was concerned. I still put up with her rants without comment but I found myself standing my ground far more frequently about incidental things than I had in the past. Previously, I would decide discretion was the better part of valor and let her have her way. Now, even if I had only marginal interest in the outcome of the discussion, I pushed my point of view. I would have to watch that. I knew it wasn't healthy for our long-term future if I continued to harp on her fall from grace.
"Take a seat, Pumpkin," I said. "I need to talk to you about some things."
Lauren did what I asked without discussion. She didn't even roll her eyes at me. I was starting to wonder if she already knew.
"Is this about the guy who killed my Dad?" she asked.
"In a way," I said. "The man the police arrested didn't do it. He's going to be released from jail in a few days."
"So you don't know who did it?" she asked, looking at Elizabeth. My voice drew her gaze back to me.
"There are two state troopers outside to arrest your mother when she gets home," I said plainly. "She is the one who killed your dad."
I saw Lauren's eyes shift from me to Elizabeth and back to me.
"No," she said as tears fell onto her cheeks.
"I'm afraid so," I said.
"Oh, God," she said in a halting voice. "I can't believe it. I mean, I guess I can believe it but I don't want to believe it."
A new thought hit her and her face went rigid.
"I'll be put in a foster home," she said. I reached out and took her hand.
"That's the other reason we're here," Elizabeth said. "We want you to come and live with us. Ben called some people he knows and it's all arranged if you want. The decision is yours, Lauren. If you don't want to come down with us, we'll find a good family up here for you. I know you're in school and you already have friends you might not want to leave. But you can come down and live with us for as long as you want."
"Really?" she asked. "You mean it?"
"We mean it," I said. "The truth is, I never wanted to leave you. Ten years ago, when your Mom and I broke up, I wished I could take you with me. When you were down there a few months ago, it hurt me to watch you leave again. I'm not sure but I think you are the first person I've ever loved in my life."
"I didn't want you to go, either," Lauren said as she jumped into my lap and wrapped her arms around my neck. "I cried and cried when Mom told me that you were never coming back. Last summer, I tried to get Mom to look for a job down there so I could be close to you again. I thought I had her talked into it. Now I guess I know why she was in such a hurry to leave."
"We're sorry that we had to be the ones to tell you," Elizabeth said, shifting over so she could put her arms around Lauren, too. "I wish we could have found a better way but we didn't want your Mom to walk in on this."
"No, it was better this way," Lauren said. "Ben always told me the best way to take off a bandage was just to pull it. I guess I always suspected. She was super weird the whole way back to the airport. I thought it might be because of the fight she had with you and the fact she hurt Ben. Now I guess I understand things better."
"So you want to come live with us?" I asked. Lauren nodded – and then buried her head against my shoulder and cried.
Pam was surprised to find us sitting at her table when she arrived home. She was carrying two shopping bags and she almost dropped them. Once she gathered herself, she simply stood in the doorway and stared.
"Elizabeth, why don't you take Lauren into the other room so Pam and I can talk?" I suggested.
"Ben," Elizabeth began but I cut her off – something that might have cost me my testicles a month earlier.
"You won't help anything," I stated. She nodded and they left me alone with Pam.
"What are you doing here?" Pam asked when she found her voice. It still quavered when she spoke.
"You know why I'm here," I answered.
"If I knew, I wouldn't have asked!" Pam shouted. She started to put the groceries away and ignored me.
"There are two state troopers outside," I said with resignation. She was going to fight this to the bitter end. "They're here to arrest you for killing Biff."
She spun around, a knife in her hand.
"Put it down before you do something else you'll regret," I said. I think she expected me to retreat but I simply sat at the table impassively. "Do you really want your daughter to see you thrown on the floor, cuffed and dragged out of the house? I made arrangements with the state police that you could turn yourself in to me to face extradition. If you want to put up a fight, you can fight with them. I'd really hate for Lauren to have both of her parents die violent deaths."
"Like it will be any easier for her to watch me strapped down and executed," Pam hissed.
"That isn't going to happen," I said. "Pam, seriously, put the knife down or I'll take it away from you. I need to talk to you about your daughter's future. I need you to think of her and not about yourself. Will you do that?"
"You sure as shit didn't think about her when you took that nigger's case," she said.
I let out a long breath and stood. When I walked toward her, she was the one who tried to take a step backward. The counter blocked her and I had her wrist in my grip before she could plan her next move. I had no doubt that she would have stabbed me. When Pam lost her temper, all bets were off – as Biff had found out. I gave a twist and slammed her arm against the counter. The knife fell to the floor. I used my other arm to block her when she took a swing at me. I shifted my hand until I gripped both of her shoulders and I shook her like a rag doll.
I knew the next act in the play. She was going to try to knee me in the balls. I pressed my thigh across hers to block her before she even moved. She looked at me in sheer terror.
"Enough," I said, looking hard at her. I had never put my hands on her in a threatening manner during our relationship but it was clear to her that I was strong enough to control her. After all, I had beaten the hell out of her ex-husband once upon a time and he had routinely beaten the hell out of her.
"Enough," I said again. I truly didn't want to strike her but I thought I was going to have to because she continued to struggle against my grip. I saw her close her eyes and nod.
"Enough," she agreed. She had tears in her eyes when they opened. I released Pam and stepped back. I was wary and I sure didn't turn my back to her. I wasn't that stupid. But she walked to the table and pulled out a chair.
Once she sat, I sat opposite her.
"I want to explain to you what's going to happen," I said in a voice that was so calm that no one would ever have guessed that a crazy woman had a knife pointed at me 90 seconds earlier. Sometimes I surprise even myself.
"Once I take you outside, the police will take you to the station," I said. "The governor has an extradition warrant that we will present to the magistrate. That means there won't be a bail hearing. You will be held. There is no reason for you to bother to fight extradition. It is a losing battle and it will just delay the inevitable. I wish I could tell you that you'll immediately be flown down but the truth is that it will probably take a month. Our state is one of several than hires a private contractor to handle transport and that means you'll be on bus for something like a week. Are you with me so far?"
"Yeah," Pam said glumly.
"Pam, if I had known it would lead to this, I would have done what I could to stop it," I said. "For Lauren's sake as much as yours."
"What will happen to Lauren?" she asked.
"That's up to you for the short-term," I said. "I have prepared paperwork that will give guardianship to me and Elizabeth. That will let us take her down to live with us as soon as we can make arrangements to pack up the apartment and handle things at school."
"And if I refuse?" she asked.
"Then I will go in front of a judge as you're being arraigned and get custody of her as a ward of the state," I said. "As with extradition, it is a losing battle to fight. You can make it hard for everyone or you can make it easy. Pam, look at it this way. She'll be nearby. I'm positive that we can make arrangements for you to serve your time at a medium-security facility about an hour from our house. That means I can bring her up to see you twice a month if you want."
"No!" Pam said. "And stop lying to me. Your wife going to put me on death row just like they tried to do that guy you defended."
"I will not lie to you, Pam," I said. "Elizabeth will not prosecute your case. You will not get a long sentence so long as you cooperate. I already have an attorney for you down there. She thinks that you will probably be sentenced to something like seven-to-10 years and be out in a little more than five if you behave. You might miss Lauren's high school graduation but you'll see her graduate from college. But, again, this depends upon your cooperation."
"What do I need to do?" she asked with an air of resignation.
"You will need to plead guilty and agree to testify against Wallace Mann," I said. It caused her eyes to jerk toward mine. "Yes, we know he was your accomplice. He told you where Biff was staying and he drove you to the motel. I would guess that he even supplied you with the gun. If I had to guess, he might have even put the idea into your head. At least that is what your attorney is prepared to argue."