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Stephanie turned to the garage. The man in the button down was standing in an open doorway, apparently talking to someone inside. “How far do you think he’ll go?”

“I think that’s it. He’s waiting for me to tell you the news, and get you to cough up more cash.”

So the two of you can split the difference later, Stephanie thought. “That’s what you told him? That you could convince me to pay more? Well, I don’t have another dime.”

“Back off, Steph. I just told him we’d talk.” He started nodding to himself. Gently at first, then a little more vigorously. “Okay. I’ve got something that might help get the price down.”

Marcus began to reach down toward the orange messenger bag at his feet, when something crashed against his passenger side window. They both looked up to see a rifle butt pounding against the glass. Once more, then again, and the window cracked into hundreds of pebble-sized pieces.

“Hands up!” the man with the rifle shouted. “I see hands!”

Stephanie’s heart slammed against her chest. She and Marcus lifted their hands in a universal gesture of surrender.

The man with the rifle was the size of a linebacker. He shoved the butt into the window one last time, sending broken bits of glass tumbling into the car. Then he whipped the barrel around to aim it straight into Marcus’s face.

The linebacker shouted over the top of the car, something Stephanie couldn’t understand. She turned to the garage. Green button down shouted back in answer. He was standing in the doorway with his arm around the waist of a young woman in boxers, a tank top and stiletto heels. Her long, blonde hair was messy and uncombed, as if she’d just climbed out of bed. The woman pressed herself against the length of green button down’s body and kissed him on the cheek. Then she flipped her hair back from her face. Stephanie started. She blinked and squinted, confirming what she thought she’d seen.

“Shit.” She looked away quickly, but it was too late. They’d made eye contact.

“Shhh,” Marcus said softly, his hands still in the air.

The linebacker shouted, “Open!” and gestured with his rifle through the broken window, toward the bag at Marcus’s feet.

“I know her,” Stephanie whispered.

“Shut up!” Marcus hissed, but he didn’t look away from the linebacker. “No weapons. No gun,” he said to him. Then he spoke in Smark. Stephanie assumed he was repeating what he’d just said. No gun. She hoped he was telling the truth.

Footsteps crunched across the gravel, and all three of them turned. The young woman was walking toward the car, grinning, open-mouthed. She leaned on Stephanie’s door, a little out of breath. “Stephanie!” she said, emphasis on the last syllable as always. Irène had been born in Riverside County, but her favorite foster parents had been a Haitian immigrant couple from whom Irène had learned French. Whenever Irène was trying to sweet talk her lawyer, she’d slip into the accent of a native French speaker.

“Irène,” Stephanie said, her voice flat while she tried to decide the right approach.

“Quelle surprise to see you here!”

“Imagine my surprise,” Stephanie said. She looked over at the linebacker, who’d edged back from the car a little and was looking across to the garage. Irène seemed to have thrown him off. Marcus kept his hands in the air. Stephanie’s arms were aching. She took a chance and lowered them onto the steering wheel.

“At our hearing last week we told the judge you were back in school and living with a group of students,” Stephanie said to Irène. “At least, that’s what you told me.”

Stephanie had worked with these kids for a long time, so she wasn’t surprised to discover Irène had lied to her. These foster youth spent years honing skills of manipulating the people in their lives, especially ones who said We’re on your side. The best Stephanie could do was manipulate them back to try to get enough of a plausible story to help them legally.

Irène laughed, a high, tinkling sound, and she leaned into the car. Up close, Stephanie could see perspiration on Irène’s pale, too pale, face. Her breath smelled stale, and it had that tell-tale metallic tang of high quality pingle. “This your boyfriend?” Irène asked.

Stephanie turned to see Marcus’s face go beet red. “No, this is business. Are you okay?”

Irène wobbled a little on her heels, laughing again.

“Irène!” Green button down grabbed her from behind, hard.

Stephanie reached for the door handle. The linebacker shouted, “No move!” Stephanie froze.

“You know her?” Green button down said in almost flawless English.

“Sevan,” Irène said in a nasal whine. “It’s okay. She’s my lawyer.”


Sevan’s eyes opened wide. He looked from Irène to Marcus and back again, a little quelle surprise in his own eyes. The lawyer in Stephanie saw her chance. She mentally squared her shoulders and threw back her long hair.

“The judge has given Irène a second chance, Sevan,” she said. She’d dealt with enough of these guys in her time. They liked to show off, but nine times out of ten they collapsed under a little tough mothering. “It’s time for her to get her act together and finish high school so she can make a decent life for herself.”

But he didn’t respond the way she expected. Instead of looking down at his shoes and sticking out his lower lip, Sevan pulled a gun from behind his back and placed it against Stephanie’s head. He leaned in close and started shouting to Marcus in Smark. Marcus shouted back. Stephanie wished he wouldn’t. The linebacker followed Sevan’s cue and pushed his rifle through the broken window, knocking more glass into the car.

Then Marcus broke into English, shouting, “She’s not a fucking cop!”

“She’s the law. You brought the law here!”

“I didn’t know she’s a lawyer.” A lie, but it sounded convincing to Stephanie.

Sevan pressed the gun against Stephanie’s head in rhythm with his words. “You gonna call her probation officer?”

I should, Stephanie thought.

“Look,” Marcus shouted, “I have something here. I think you’ll want to see it.” He gestured toward his orange messenger bag.

Stephanie felt her palms go clammy. What did he have tucked away in there?

“What is it?” Sevan asked.

“Make this fucker get his rifle out of my face and I’ll show you.”

No, he wasn’t about to do something idiotic, was he? If Marcus pulled a gun now, they’d both end up dead. Irène too, probably.

Sevan hesitated.

“Don’t be stupid,” Stephanie whispered.

“Shut up, lawyer,” Sevan said. Then he rattled off something in Smark. The linebacker stepped back.

Marcus eased himself forward, keeping his hands in plain sight. He lifted the orange messenger bag and placed it in Stephanie’s lap. Still moving slowly and deliberately, Marcus lifted the flap and pulled the sides apart, allowing Sevan to see the contents. Stephanie saw them too.

So it was true.

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