Death of a Rancher's Daughter
The time had come to break the news.
Sandra had waited for the perfect time to tell her law partner-mother she was quitting, but her plans had gone awry. On her way to the office, she had worked up the courage, but just as she arrived, Erma drove off and didn't return until after lunch. Then, Erma had an appointment with a new client. Now, finally, Sandra just had to wait for Erma to finish a phone call.
Ever since the appalling Stuart-thing had happened, Sandra had been depressed. She'd been wallowing in self-pity for too long. She’d made the decision to move away from Galveston, make a clean break. She'd been offered a job in Houston at an insurance firm, where they promised she'd never have to litigate.
She could buy a place midway between the two cities so she would be within thirty-minutes of her job in downtown Houston and thirty-minutes from her daughter, Melinda. Exercising her periods of possession would be fairly easy. Now, she just needed to get past a showdown with her mother. Sandra might be a forty-something, but the anticipation of a battle with Erma still created a great deal of angst.
While she waited, Sandra went into the kitchen for more coffee, hoping the caffeine would keep her wits sharp. She pulled her suit jacket tight and buttoned it against the draft. On the south side, the kitchen opened onto the back porch that led to the parking area and was often colder than the other rooms in their house-office, even when a north wind blew.
Erma, dressed in her standard black pantsuit but in her stockinged feet, sped around the corner from the sunroom. She all but skidded to a stop next to the dinette table.
"You're off the phone,” Sandra said. "Good. There's something I need to talk to you about."
"I need to talk to you, too, and right now." Erma's hands hung by her sides, her stance a familiar one, as if she were about to engage in gun battle.
Did Erma know about the job in Houston? No. She would have come in yelling. Erma could have her say, but Sandra was still going to break the news about her job prospect. "Damn, let me finish pouring my coffee, will you?"
“Just hurry up and come into my office." Erma stalked back the way she'd come.
As soon as she filled her cup, Sandra stepped into their legal secretary's office. "Hey, Patricia, I'll be with Erma.”
Patricia looked up from her computer. "Raining pretty hard out there. Hope Mel will be okay."
"I'm sure she'll be fine. She's pretty good at taking care of herself." Sandra shivered, still feeling a bit of a chill. "Everything going okay here?"
Patricia's eyes grew wide, as if she knew Sandra was procrastinating. "Yeah. Everything okay with you?" Not waiting for an answer, Patricia turned back to her computer.
Sandra drew a deep breath, her heart palpitating, and strode into Erma's office, where she dropped into one of the client chairs. Erma stared into space. "I'm here," Sandra said. "What's so important?"
A box of tissues sat at Erma's elbow, some of them in a clump on her desk. "Katy Jo Schindler is dead."
Sandra racked her brain. The name was familiar.
"She was murdered."
"Oh," Sandra said. "Sorry to hear that." She still couldn't place the name. She sipped her coffee and waited for Erma's next words.
"BJ called." Erma tapped her fingers on her desktop.
Another familiar name. Sandra had been so focused on herself, so out of it some days, her thinking was foggy. That was one of the reasons she wanted to make a change. She had turned a corner and was coming out of the doldrums.
"Are you listening to me? Rufina Barboza, BJ's best friend, has been charged with Katy Jo's murder."
"Oh, BJ Schindler." Sandra hadn't thought about the Schindlers in a long time. "Your friend BJ in Fredericksburg, right? And Katy Jo is one of the twins?"
"Goddamn, Sandra. Took you long enough. Yes, my good friend's daughter, Katy Jo, has been murdered."
Sandra nodded, wondering why Erma was telling her this.
"Don't you want to know how Katy Jo died?"
"If you want to tell me."
The front door squeaked, and Mel hollered, her voice reverberating in the tall ceilings. "It's only me."
"Hey, kid," Erma called.
A minute later, Mel tiptoed into Erma's office. "Hey, Grandma. Hey, Mom." She wore a pink sweater over a gray turtleneck, black skinny jeans, and a pair of black socks. Her hair, the same dark shade of brown as her mother's and what had been the color of Erma's before she'd gone gray, was pasted to her head like a rubber-swimming cap. "Before you ask, I left my shoes on the front porch with my umbrella. They're soaked. And I already dumped everything else on my desk." She kissed Erma on the cheek. "How are you today, Grandma?"
"Erma," Erma said. "How many times do I hafta tell you? At fifteen, you're old enough to call me Erma."
Mel scooted over to Sandra and kissed her cheek, too. "I need to dry my hair."
"How's your day been?" Sandra asked, glad to have a distraction from the conversation she and Erma had been having.
"It may be a rainy day, but it's a good day. I got an A on my essay." Mel flashed a smile.
"You're so brilliant, baby girl." Sandra pulled Mel to her for a hug.
"Get this," Sandra said while she still had the gumption to make her announcement. "I've been offered a job in Houston at an insurance defense firm. I'm pretty sure I'm going to take it."
Erma's face paled as she slammed her hand on her desk. "What the hell? Like you would work for any insurance firm—those mean, hateful, greedy bastards. What the hell are you talking about?"
"OMG, Mom." Eyes wide, Mel stared from Erma to Sandra. "You're going to Houston? What about us here?"
"Kid, dry off and go file away the folders on your mother's credenza," Erma said. "Afterward, you can answer the phone for Patricia so she can get some stuff done."
"Wait, I want in on this." Mel glanced at Sandra.
Sandra said, "Go on. We'll talk later." She closed both doors to the office behind Mel and sat back down. "After your heart attack and my fiasco with Stuart, I put some feelers out."
"What in the hell?" Erma said again. She put both hands on her desk and rose. "Are you out of your mind?"
Sandra picked up her cup and took another sip, giving herself time to consider her response. "Erma, you don't need me. You're loaded. You can retire and take it easy."
Erma pounded her desk. "Goddamnit, how many times do I need to tell you, I'm all right? The doctor's given me a clean bill of health."
"What he said was, if you'd stop drinking and smoking—or vaping—whatever you're doing these days, you could live a lot longer. But you're not quitting, and we both know it." She set her cup on the desk and strode around to the other side, sticking her face right up next to Erma's. "I smelled bourbon on your breath as soon as I came in here. I know you've got a stash somewhere. You think no one knows about your drinking?"
Erma pushed her away. "Get out of my face. Just had one little swallow. Was going to take a bit of a nap, if you must know. I thought it would help me doze off."
"Sure you were. We both know you're not taking care of yourself, but that's only half of it. You don't need me even if you want to continue doing a bit of estate work, but I think you should retire, take up painting or something."
"You don't want to work for an insurance firm. You're still depressed, that's all. This winter weather isn't helping any."
"I'm not depressed. I'm over it. I want a change. I don't want to do criminal law anymore."
"Yes, you do. You're great at it. You just gotta get over Stuart. He was an asshole. You're well rid of him." Erma bounded from her chair and started pacing. "Get ahold of yourself. There's no reason to go to work for a blood-sucking insurance firm, especially in Houston. You'd drive up there every day?"
Sandra's neck grew hot. She hated people telling her what to do, especially her mother. "They're going to pay me really well, and I'll have benefits. And, I'm going to move to Clear Lake."
Erma trotted to Sandra's chair and stood over her. "You’re out of your effing mind."
If Erma got any closer, Sandra would be tasting the bourbon. In fact, the smell overwhelmed the breathable air. She pushed her away. "I won't have to litigate, and some days I'll even work from home."
Erma heaved a big sigh. She went to the glass-paned doors and peered into the backyard where the cars were parked off the alley. Sandra's eyes followed. The rain had eased up a bit, but deep cloud cover enveloped the island. Drab days certainly didn't help anyone's spirits, much less hers.
"Daughter, you know I've never been good at telling you how I feel, but if you take that job, you'll be making a big mistake."
Sandra pressed a knuckle to her lips. Neither of them was great at communicating with the other. Discovering Stuart’s double life had taken a toll on Sandra, and Erma knew it. Sandra had renounced men, and she didn't want to do any more criminal defense work. End of story.
"Well, let me ask you this," Erma said. "Have you given them a firm answer?"
Sandra shook her head. "Not yet. Told them I'd get back to them."
"You know what the trouble with you is?" Erma shook her finger at Sandra. "Other than the everyday stuff? I've got it all figured out."
"Oh, great, amateur psychologist."
"Every good lawyer is one, you know." Erma sat down again. "You've lost faith in yourself, in your ability to judge character."
Sandra stared at her mother. A fight was not what she wanted. Fatigue dogged her every day. If she hadn't had Mel, she might have done something drastic, like cut her throat. At least that's what she had thought some days. "It's not that. I'm sick of going to the jail, sick of representing the dregs of society, sick of fighting with the district attorney's office."
"No," Erma said. "That's not your problem."
"I think I know my own mind."
"No, you don't. What would cure you, Sandra, my dear, would be a good, juicy case." Erma smacked her lips. "You've been doing nothing but crappy little cases, pleas of guilty in misdemeanor and felony court, a bit of divorce work. What you need is something you can really sink your teeth into."
"Last week you said what I really needed was to get away from Galveston for a while. If you're such an expert, which is it?"
"How would you like to spend some time in a sweet little historical town in the Texas Hill Country?"
"Uh-oh. I see an ambush coming. You're not suggesting I take a sabbatical from practicing law and spend time in Fredericksburg with BJ, are you?" Sandra stood. "I'm going back to my office. I've got work to do." She gave her mother a dark look. "Loose ends to tie up."
"Sit down, Sandra."
Sandra wanted only to get out of there. She shouldn't have mentioned the job offer. "Why? What now?"
"Just sit down and hear me out about BJ."
Sandra sat back down, her patience thin. "BJ called and told you about Katy Jo dying." Sandra started to get up again.
"Now wait just a minute. About Katy Jo..."
"My recollection of them is coming back. Katy Jo is—was the nice twin, if I recall correctly."
"Right." Erma covered her mouth for a couple of seconds. Her eyes welled up. "BJ wants to hire you to defend Rufina Barboza, because they don't trust the lawyers up there."
"Yeah. No. What? I'm confused." Erma was trying to manipulate her again. Her tears probably weren't sincere. "Rufina is that little Mexican woman BJ grew up with? BJ wants to hire me to defend her?" Not only had she sworn off murder cases, but she'd never liked defending guilty people, even though she knew everyone had a right to representation and all that.
Erma came from behind her desk, comporting herself as she would at the beginning of a jury argument. "She didn't do it. Rufina has been BJ's best friend for about a hundred years. She's been like a second mother to those kids." She clasped her hands behind her back. "Her parents worked on the ranch until they grew old and retired to Mexico. As a favor to BJ and Roy, Rufina left her job at the courthouse and took over running the house and supervising the household workers."
Sandra resisted a variety of negative responses that crossed her mind. "Why me?"
"The thing is, Rufina's scared. She's a little Mexican-American woman raised on a ranch, accused of the death of a rancher's daughter." Erma's lined face grew grimmer. "You can see how it is, can't you? She would be easy prey for the district attorney. She wants someone she can trust."
"You need to get your story straight. If she worked in the courthouse, she knows how the courts operate, unless she was a cleaning lady or something like that."
"She was a clerk, and that doesn't mean the DA can't railroad her."
"I haven't seen Rufina since God knows when. She doesn't even know me. Besides, I don't know anyone in the Hill Country. I don't know how they do things up there."
"It's still Texas, isn't it? The same law applies."
"This doesn't make any sense. Why would BJ call down here and ask me to defend her housekeeper or manager or whatever they call her?" She looked cockeyed at Erma. "Oh—wait a minute. Wait just a minute. I see what's going on."
"No, you don't. You don't understand."
"BJ called you for a referral, and you suggested me." Sandra jabbed her finger at Erma. "She doesn't want me at all. BJ called you to get a recommendation for a criminal defense lawyer, and you thought if you could get her to hire me, somehow it would change how I've been feeling."
Erma's face blanched. "No, that's not it. Not at all."
Sandra took her coffee cup and headed for the door. "No way. Your little scheme isn't going to work. You tell her to get someone else and keep me out of it."
"Didn't you hear me? They're looking for someone they can trust." Erma's voice rose two octaves. "That's why she called me."
"No." Sandra flung open the door, sending Patricia scrambling. "I'm not going way up there so you can feel like you've done something to make me feel better." She stalked across the hall to her office.
"Okay, so I haven't been completely honest with you," Erma hollered. She hurried after Sandra. "I'm not trying to make you feel better. BJ is one of my oldest and dearest friends. She called me to defend Rufina, okay? Me." She gripped her jacket's lapels, her chin jutting out. "And when I said I don't try those kinds of cases anymore, she said she'd settle for you—if you were any good."
The room turned a shade of red as Sandra threw herself into her executive chair. Anger burned in her chest. "Settle? She said she'd settle for me? Well, you just call her back—"
"I quoted her a fifty K retainer plus expenses." Erma barricaded herself behind one of Sandra's client chairs.
"I don't care what you quoted her," Sandra said, not looking up from her desk. "You call her back and tell her no. Not now, not ever. Never. And get out of my office."
"End of discussion. I'm never taking another murder case, and you can't make me."
"Okay then, just listen a minute. I told BJ you might not take the case, but here's the thing. The arraignment is on Monday. Rufina at least needs an attorney for the arraignment."
Sandra crossed her arms and shook her head. "I'm not doing it. I'm sure BJ can find a decent enough attorney in the Hill Country. I'll bet there are over a dozen lawyers in San Antonio alone who are certified to try cap murder cases. One of them can run up there for the arraignment. It's only an hour away."
"Did I say cap murder? We don't know if the DA is charging her with capital murder yet, Sandra." The sudden edge in Erma's voice was as sharp as a filet knife. "We won't know that until Monday."
"What is this we? I know you're not talking about me. Anyway, Rufina has to know what she's charged with. They have to serve her with the indictment two days before the arraignment, so she should have gotten it yesterday." Erma couldn't have forgotten a thing like that. She wasn't that old.
"I know that." Erma cleared her throat.
"I'm sure if BJ hires someone up there, they won't let Rufina plead to anything without formal service of the indictment."
Erma stood still and stared at Sandra for a moment. "Well, okay then." She turned back toward her own office.
Sandra had never known her mother to give up that easily. "What does that mean?"
Erma tossed words over her shoulder. "I'll just have to do it myself."
"Are you crazy? You're too old and your heart is too weak for you to drive five or six hours to the Hill Country, much less take on the Fredericksburg County—"
"Gillespie County. Fredericksburg is the town."
"Whatever—DA's office," Sandra finished.
"Actually, I don't think Gillespie County has its own district attorney. I think the district has several counties in it. And anyway, I'm only sixty-eight. I expect to be driving until I'm at least ninety."
"I don't give a shit how old you are, Erma Townley, you're not going up there."
"But I promised—"
"The arraignment is not a crucial event in the grand scheme of things. Rufina can answer not guilty for herself, and the judge will ask her if she can afford to hire a lawyer, and she'll say no, and the judge will probably appoint one right then and there." Sandra's face grew hotter. She needed to calm down, or she'd end up with a heart condition like Erma. "You hear what I'm saying? She doesn't need you."
Erma stormed back to Sandra. "How are you going to stop me?" Her jaw looked like it was set in stone. "I promised my friend, so I'm going, and that's final. I don't care what you say."
"No, you're not." Sandra towered over her mother. Teeth clenched, she stared down into Erma's red face. "And if you have a heart attack right here and now, you'll just prove my point."
Erma tossed her head. "I can get angry without having a heart attack. That's all I am, angry. Stop treating me like an invalid." She stormed toward her office again.
"When was the last time you drove on the Gulf Freeway?" Sandra followed Erma into her office and stood at her back, fists clenched every bit as tight as her teeth. "Traffic has gotten worse than terrible." How did one reason with a determined old broad like her mother? "In fact, when’s the last time you had your Lincoln serviced? What are you going to do if your car breaks down on the freeway? You have no emergency assistance set up for your car. Who are you going to call for help?"
"It's not up for discussion." Erma turned and smirked at Sandra again. "Now, as you succinctly told me a few minutes ago, get out."
At a loss for what else to do, Sandra went into her own office and called Erma's doctor. When he came on the line, she said, "Doc, this is Sandra Salinsky. I'm at my wits' end. Erma is determined to drive herself to Fredericksburg and take on a murder case. I can't get her to listen to reason."
A laugh came from the other end of the phone. "She's really going to do it?"
"You knew? You already knew about this?" She couldn't believe her ears. "How did you find out? Did she call you? What's the deal? Why didn't you call me?"
"You know how stubborn Erma can be. She called and asked what I thought as her physician, not as her friend. She said if she couldn't get you to take the case, she'd do it herself."
"You've been her doctor and her friend for over thirty years, and you didn't tell her she couldn't do it?"
"No one can tell Erma anything. I said she could have a heart attack at any time, driving on the highway, walking across the street, or arguing in a courtroom."
"Why is she going? You told her it could kill her, and she's still going."
"Oh, I didn't tell her it could kill her. I simply said any of us could die at any time, that her odds were worse than those of other people. She said she'd rather die doing something she liked than sitting around with her thumb up her—"
"I understand." Sandra wanted to scream. "Couldn't you have told her she couldn't do it? Couldn't you have advised against it?"
"If you're concerned with your mother's health, why not go up there with her? At least drive her, even if you aren't going to take the case."
Sandra sighed. "She's really got me where she wants me, doesn't she?"
No response came from the other end of the phone.
"If I put her on the phone, Doc, will you try to talk her out of it?"
"About five-minutes after she became my patient, I gave up trying to talk her into, or out of, anything."
"Shit." Tears of anger pushed at the back of Sandra's eyes.
"What's the harm in you taking this case?"
"She thinks she can manipulate me with this behavior."
"When it comes down to it, which is more important? Doing what you can to stop her from killing herself? Or winning a battle with your mother?"
"Oh, shut up, Doc," Sandra said.
His laugh wasn't harsh.
"Thanks anyway. Goodbye." Still shaking her head, Sandra stomped back into Erma’s office. "All right, you."
"Why are you back?" Erma's lips quivered.
"Here's the deal. We'll both drive up on Sunday evening for the arraignment on Monday. We'll take my Volvo. Any questions?"
"Who's lead counsel?"
"I didn't say I'm representing Rufina in a trial, but I'll announce for her at the arraignment and see what I can do about bail. Afterward, we'll find someone up there BJ can settle for."
Sandra headed back to her office for what she hoped would be the last time that day. When she glanced over her shoulder, Erma had a shit-eating grin on her face. Sandra might have lost the first round, but she still had no intention of taking a murder case in what was tantamount to foreign territory.