Still, somebody had to stand up and take the risk. Somebody had to draw a line, or people like Manuel would always win.
She must’ve sighed because Max leaned over the seat and touched her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
Stuffing the list into the envelope she’d already stamped, she licked the seal. “Nothing baby. I’m okay,” she said, but she wasn’t thinking about her words. She was thinking about Manuel and his family, the clandestine meetings they had, the hushed conversations, the many extended trips to Mexico, the bagfuls of money Manuel sometimes brought home. All of this she’d typed out in perfect detail. The Rodriguez family was breaking the law. She knew she should be turning them in on principle alone. But she wasn’t doing this for principle. She was doing it for Juanita.
“Thank you, my friend,” she whispered. Then she dropped the envelope in the box, slammed her creaky old door and drove away.
PRESTON FROWNED at the pack of cigarettes he’d tossed on Joanie’s table. He was tempted to smoke. Since he’d left Emma and Max early this morning, he’d nearly lit up at least a thousand different times. But the moment he put that cigarette between his fingers and started to strike a match, he remembered Max and threw it away. He didn’t want to do anything he wouldn’t want Max to copy, even though Max could no longer see him.
“Are you ready?” Joanie asked.
She sounded nervous. Preston felt sorry for her. The apartment she’d rented was a far cry from the home she’d owned in Half Moon Bay, and it was obvious she hadn’t felt well enough, physically or emotionally, to clean it. Dishes cluttered the counters. Clothes covered the floor. The kitchen smelled like rotten eggs.
“Depression,” she’d muttered when she let him in.
She’d also said her sister would move in with her soon to help get ready for the baby. Preston thought that was probably a good idea.
“Go ahead,” he replied. He turned the tape recorder on, and she dialed Vince at his office.
Once the receptionist answered, she signaled Preston to pick up the extension.
Preston held his microphone to the receiver and listened around it as Joanie asked for Vince.
The receptionist paused. “Is this Joanie?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Oh.” Another pause. “Hold on a second.”
Music came through as Joanie made a face at the woman who’d just put them on hold. She’s the one, she mouthed to him.
Preston gave her a sympathetic look. Maybe Joanie had her shortcomings, but he didn’t think anyone deserved to be married to Vince.
“Is he ever going to answer?” he whispered after another five minutes.
“He’s probably lifting her skirt first,” she whispered back. “But don’t worry. That never takes long.”
Preston smiled at her sarcasm, then quickly sobered when Vince picked up. “Joanie?”
“Hi, Vince. I take it you were busy diddling your receptionist.”
“I’m busy seeing a patient.”
“Well, I hope she isn’t married. Her husband might not take his marriage vows as lightly as you did.”
“I mean, I’m seeing a patient who’s ill,” he snapped. “What do you need?”
“Don’t you want to know how the baby’s doing?”
“If you’re calling to—”
“No, this isn’t about the baby. I know you don’t care about that.”
When Vince didn’t contradict her, Preston winced at the disappointment and pain she had to be experiencing.
“What is it, then?” he asked.
“I’ve been doing some thinking.”
“Turning over a new leaf?”
Preston was shocked by how antagonistic their relationship had become.
“I guess you could say that,” Joanie replied. “Considering I’ve never gone to the police before.”
He fell silent, and she flipped her finger at him even though he couldn’t see her.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, his voice suddenly filled with caution.
“I’m talking about Billy and Dallas.”
“Why?” He lowered his voice, and Preston guessed the receptionist who’d answered the phone, or someone else, was around. “I’ve told you before, I didn’t have anything to do with what happened.”
“Healthy kids don’t normally die of the flu, Vince. Left to himself, Dallas would have recovered.”
“Dallas didn’t have the flu. He had meningococcal septicemia.”
“Question is, how’d he get it?”
“You’ve asked me this before, Joanie.”
“I’m asking again.”
“One in ten people carry the bacteria that causes meningitis and septicemia. It’s passed on by close contact. In a very few people, the bacteria gets into the blood stream and cause meningitis and/or septicemia. Anyone can get it. Anyone can die from it. You can accuse me all you want, but you’ll never be able to prove a thing. Now I’m going to hang up—”
“You do, and I’ll tell the police how you cried for hours after Billy died, asking me over and over again, ‘You don’t think they’ll blame me, do you?’ I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little suspicious to me.”
“It’s been five years since Billy died!”
“And only two years since Dallas did.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“I think you’ll do it again.”
“No, I won’t!”
Joanie turned to stare, wide-eyed, at Preston. “Are you admitting you did it before?”
“N-no, I’m n-not,” he said. Preston hadn’t known Vince to possess any kind of speech impairment until Dallas died. Then he’d stuttered his way through every explanation about what had happened for the next twenty-four hours.
Joanie glanced down at the notes Preston had given her earlier. “I’ve been doing a little research, Vince,” she said. “Less than five percent of people with meningococcal meningitis die of the disease. So far, you’ve lost sixty-six percent. Two out of three.”
“For your information, m-m-morbidity among people who come down with s-s-septicemia, who also show no symptoms of m-meningitis, is around twenty percent, not f-five. I’ve done my research, too, Joanie. No one’s going to pin those boys’ d-deaths on me. Septicemia c-can strike within hours.”