Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Hero De Facto - Chapter 8

A loud, harsh buzzing ruined the best dream Aisha had in a long time. It had been about Rey and had just reached the X-rated part. He’s a client. Don’t go there.

She groped for her phone and hit the answer button. “What?”

“Is this Aisha Franklin?” a gruff male voice said.

She glanced at the screen. Unknown number. “Yes. Who is this?”

“You need to get to the jail before the seven a.m. shift change. If you have some official muscle, bring it. She’s okay for now, but she won’t be if you don’t get to her first. Don’t let them know you know anything.”

She rolled upright, her heart hammering and cold sweat on her skin. “Who the hell is this?”

“The guy who was supposed to kill her.” He hung up.

Aisha, now wide awake, reached for the light switch. It was after three-thirty and she definitely wasn’t getting back to sleep after that phone call. Official muscle? She had Rey, but the caller had definitely said official. His insinuation was it shouldn’t be somebody affiliated with the Canyon Pointe PD.

That left one person. And Harri was going to be even less happy about this.

She had an email with his new number. She found it and punched in the number, praying he’d answer.

“Lewis,” a deep voice said after the third ring.

“Eddie? It’s Aisha.”

“Aisha? What the hell? What time is it?”

“Almost four. Harri’s in trouble.”

He sighed. “What did she do now? And why isn’t she calling me?” He sighed again. “Okay, stupid question. She wouldn’t call me for help if she was on fire. It’s been two freakin’ years since the divorce and she still hasn’t spoken to me.”

“She’s in big trouble, Eddie, and I need your help, or I wouldn’t be calling.”

“That thing with City Hall?”

“Yeah,” Aisha said. “They’ve arrested her on suspicion of supervilliany. She’s in jail.”

“What? In jail? What the hell happened?”

“It’s a set up. Shut up and listen. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Aisha filled him in. Eddie had been a city cop, a detective, but had left in the aftermath of the divorce for a job with the FBI. He had been recently transferred to the local FBI office, something Aisha wasn’t sure Harri knew yet. And even with a murder attempt and a conspiracy to frame her, Harri wasn’t going to be happy to see him.

All business now, Eddie told her to get to the jail as soon as she could and he’d meet her there. If they couldn’t get her bail, Eddie would call in some favors and get her transferred to federal protective custody.

Aisha made a second call to Harri’s house. Thankfully, the three waywards had listened to her and stayed there for the night. She told Rey what was going on and that the three of them needed to stay put for now.

Trying to quash her fear, Aisha stumbled to the bathroom to get presentable. Get your head in the game and get to work, she told her reflection. You’ve got a new job, remember?

But could she save her first client?

* * *

“What’s he doing here?” Harri hissed when her ex-husband strode into the courtroom. The embarrassment couldn’t get any worse. She still wore her jail jumpsuit and handcuffs as she sat with Aisha on a bench, waiting for the judge.

“What did I tell you?” Eddie said as he approached. He rolled his eyes. “Nice to see you too, Harri. Don’t take this wrong but orange really isn’t your color.”

“Bite me.” She turned to Aisha. “My…uh, visitor called you?”

Aisha nodded. “Which is why I called Eddie.” She shot a glance at the officer who escorted Harri from the jail, and she lowered her voice. “We can’t trust the locals. At least not until we know what’s going on.”

“And you expect me to trust him?” Harri glared at Eddie.

“This isn’t about your marriage. You’re in deep shit, girl, and I need every shoveler I can get.”

Eddie snorted back a laugh, then glared at the jail officer escorting Harri. The woman had the sense to blanch and not make a smart-assed comment about her prisoner.

“Where’s Rey?” Harri asked. “And Patty? Is she okay?”

“Rey’s babysitting the kids at your place.”

Harri nodded, relieved. Nobody would get near Patty if Rey was there.

Judge Inunza’s secretary came out and escorted them into the judge’s chambers. Inunza was sipping coffee and looking over a stack of paperwork. Cal sat in one of the chairs in front of the judge’s desk, accompanied by the district attorney himself.

Mike Michaels was a much better politician than a lawyer. He’d once been a gifted prosecutor, had made his name on the notorious Canyon family murders even though he’d lost, but he hadn’t been in a courtroom in fifteen years. Now, he spent most of his time lunching with political supporters and sneaking out to play golf.

Harri almost felt sympathy for Cal having to work for the jerk. Almost. Cal wasn’t a bad guy, but Harri’s loyalty was all to Aisha, and she hated Cal on principle even if Aisha didn’t.

She glanced at Eddie. Solid, plain, broken-nosed Eddie who’d wanted nothing more than three kids and a secure pension. Harri would never admit this to anyone in a hundred million years, but she hadn’t spoken to him since the divorce more to avoid feeling her own guilt over how things had ended than any residual anger over his leaving her for Sarah.

Harri understood why he’d left even though she pretended she didn’t. Eddie hadn’t changed. He was the guy he’d always been. Stable. Husband and dad material. And Harri had once wanted to be a mom. Or least she thought she had, in a vague someday sort of way.

But she kept finding excuses and finally her biological clock started ticking too loudly to ignore. Eddie gave her an ultimatum—now or never. She chose never. He chose Sarah. She liked to claim that he’d traded her in for a younger model, but she knew in her heart that wasn’t true. He’d chosen the life he’d always wanted over the life she’d hoped he’d drift into.Inunza looked up from the paperwork and smiled at her, his dark eyes twinkling.

Harri felt the tense icy knot in her gut begin to melt.

“Hey, Harri,” Inunza said. “I haven’t seen you in my courtroom in a while. Never expected to see you in this role.”

“Neither did I, Your Honor,” Harri said. “How’s Carol?”

“Good. Panicking over Paul’s college applications, but that’s to be expected. Mike,” the judge continued, without missing a beat. “This case is a flaming load of bullshit, and we both know it. You got nothing. I’m releasing her. Without any bail and with an apology. And if you bring me one more case with such a blatant lack of evidentiary support, I’ll file a complaint with the Bar. I’m not Burgess. I’m not part of your campaign staff. And make sure to pass that same message on to that weasel Quentin when you see him.”


Inunza pointed his index finger at the DA. “Not one more word, Mike. Not one.”

“I‘ll go over your head.”

Inunza looked at Mike over his reading glasses, his dark eyes unreadable. “Really? Best of luck with that. The folks over at the court of appeals don’t like this political crap of yours any better than I do. And if you disobey me again, I’ll hold you in contempt.”

The judge turned to Aisha. “Ms. Franklin, if they continue to bother your client, come see me, and I’ll make sure the district attorney becomes well acquainted with the full range of my particular set of superpowers.” He nodded at Eddie. “Agent Lewis. Why are the feds are taking an interest?”

“Only to ensure the civil rights and safety of Ms. Winters. We’ve been made aware of certain…irregularities in how this case has been processed.”

What little blood remained in Mike Michaels’ face drained away. His skin looked like slightly moldy cottage cheese.

“Do tell,” Inunza said. “Which irregularities, of course, would be highlighted in public court documents should the district attorney not release Ms. Winters immediately.”

“But Ms. Winters will need to be taken back to the jail for exit processing. It will take at least two hours—” The DA protested.

Inunza cut him off with a look. “No, Mike, it will not. The officer will uncuff her right now, Ms. Franklin and Mr. Johnson will go fetch her belongings, and you, Ms. Winters, Agent Lewis of the FBI, and I will wait here for them to return.”

The judge smiled at Harri again. “No offense, kiddo, but you got jail stink and so will your clothes.”

“Yes, your Honor, I’m well aware. Nothing a hot shower and dry cleaning won’t fix.”

“I’m sure the district attorney would be happy to pay for the dry cleaning.” Inunza raised an eyebrow as he glanced at Michaels.

The DA merely nodded. He had enough sense to know he’d lost this round. Harri wondered if he had known about the murder plot. Michaels was a slimy character, but murder? She couldn’t imagine either him or Quentin Samuels actually capable of plotting to kill her. Someone else had to be pulling their strings.

Who the hell had she pissed off enough they wanted her dead?

* * *

While Harri showered off the jail stink in her own bathroom, Aisha admired Arthur’s handiwork. The supervillain wannabe had been busy since Harri’s arrest.

“I hacked into the city servers. They’ve got everything on the cloud.” Arthur shook his head. “Least secure place on the planet. I copied everything with hers or Patty’s name on it. I also checked her personal laptop and found same malware that was on mine. It’s on Patty’s phone and home computer, too. Somebody’s been watching all of us for a while.”

Aisha frowned. “How did you find the spyware?”

“Patty complained how slow Ms. Winters’s laptop was when she was downloading her legal forms yesterday.” Arthur shook his head. “After I did some basic clean-up, it was still dragging, so I did some digging.”

“Did you clean out the spyware?” Aisha asked.

Arthur shook his head. “I had a different idea. If I scrape her laptop, they’ll know we’re on to them. If she doesn’t mind buying another computer, I can make sure it stays clean and we can use the dirty one to try to…I don’t know…set up the bad guys. Feed them what we want them to know.”

Aisha smiled. “Now that’s some supervillian plotting. Except using your powers for good.”

Arthur smiled so wide Aisha worried the top of his head might fall off. She was really starting to like him, in spite of herself. If he had clearer skin, a better haircut, maybe put some weight on him, and Patty might like him even more.

No one could miss his shy, admiring looks at Harri’s assistant when he thought no one was looking. Maybe Aisha could finagle Jeremy’s help.

Harri walked into the dining room in a t-shirt and jeans, rubbing her hair with a towel. “I’m fried. But at least now I can stand my own smell. We need to be thinking about office space.”

“I know. Neither of our places is big enough to set up even a temporary office.” Aisha shivered at Arthur’s revelation. “And we need a secure place to meet clients, but that’s expensive as hell.”

Harri threw the towel over her shoulder. “I’m open to suggestions.”

Patty and Rey’s arrival with lunch saved Aisha from dealing with the money issue, even if it was only temporary reprieve. “Oh, my god. I love Marta’s place,” Patty exclaimed as she pulled out aluminum food containers from the bags they brought in. She elbowed Rey. “Tell them what your friend said.”

He glanced at Aisha and blushed before he turned to Harri. “We ran into Miguel, who watches the Lechuza Building for the owner. He said they’d be willing to offer you office space cheap.” He cleared his throat. “That’s assuming you ladies are interested.”

Aisha watched Harri. “I think it’s time we have the talk.”

“Let’s take our lunches out to the patio.” Harri sauntered over to the refrigerator and pulled out a couple of bottles of water.

“You don’t have to leave on our account,” Arthur protested.

“It’s not personal, sweetie,” Patty said. Arthur’s cheeks turned red at her endearment. “The attorneys need to talk strategy without the clients freaking out. It’s part of their superpower of seeming to know all the answers.” She grinned at Harri and Aisha.

Harri raised one hand to her forehead while still holding the water bottle. “Egads, Aisha! Our secretary has innocently revealed our secrets to the evil supervillain.”

“Cut it out,” Aisha said, trying not to laugh. “You’re going to scare off our only clients.”

She grabbed hers and Harri’s lunches, utensils and napkins, not to mention her pad and pen, before following Harri out to her mini-patio. Harri pushed the sliding glass door shut and joined Aisha at the little table.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“Well, you know my trust fund went over the cliff with Dad and Laura and the big bag of coke,” Harri said. “At least most of it.”

Aisha wrote “Assets” and “Liabilities” on the top of the page.

Harri groaned. “You would head right for the bottom line.”

Aisha tried to look sympathetic. “I know how much you hate talking about money. I know it makes you anxious. But we need to be honest with each other, face reality, and talk numbers.”

Harri blew out a deep breath and jabbed at her enchilada. “If I had any money, I wouldn’t have had to live with you and your parents.”

“Would you have preferred foster care?” Aisha tapped her pen against the legal pad. “Besides, the judge wouldn’t have declared you an emancipated minor if you didn’t have some money.”

Harri shook her head. “After college and law school, all I had left of the Winters’ fortune was the family discount at Winters’ flagship store downtown and a lifetime membership at Whitechapel Country Club, which I never use because I hate the snobs there.”

She waved her fork. “I own the house and my car free and clear. And my student loans are almost paid off. Only about twenty grand to go.”

Aisha raised an eyebrow. “Only? What happened to the education account Grandma Harri set up?”

Harri nodded. “Think about it. Books and expenses for undergrad and law school, not to mention room and board.”

“But you and I both worked—”

“Not to rub it in your face, but you got a discount because your dad was a professor.”

“Sorry.” Aisha grimaced. “That must have been a pile of money. Too bad you couldn’t have applied to be a Winters scholar.”

“No shit. I doubt Grandma ever thought her own granddaughter would be a low-come female, but I was automatically disqualified from participating under the terms of the endowment. No family members. And that stupid endowment is part of the reason why people think I’m still rich. The University is always bugging me for money. ‘You already got it,’ I tell them. ‘It’s called tuition.’ Bastards.”

Aisha raised her hands. “Sorry. I forgot what a sore topic it was.” She paused a moment. “You got any cash?”

Harri shrugged. “Some. I’ve got about $25,000 in an emergency cash fund Dad and Laura didn’t know about because only I have the safe deposit key. And there’s my 401(k). Other than that, no.”

Aisha shook her head. “We aren’t raiding our retirement accounts. Either one of us. No way.”

Harri sank down in her chair, looking relieved. “I’m sorry I’m so weird about money. I just…I don’t want to ever feel that powerless again. Like I did when I was a kid. Never again.”

Aisha reached over and squeezed her hand. “Girl, I know. I was there when Mom and Dad rescued you from that social worker. I’m sorry you had to go through all that. If I’d known—”

“You were a kid just like I was. And it’s not like I told you. I didn’t tell anybody how bad it was.” She watched the squirrels playing by the pin oak trees for a moment before her attention return to Aisha. “What about you?”

She looked away, embarrassed as hell. It wasn’t until this moment she realized she expected Harri to front the bulk of their new venture. “You don’t want to know.”

“Hey, I showed you mine. Now, you show me yours. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of money. You worked for a big law firm.”

“As an associate.”

Harri snorted. “Making more than me I bet.”

Aisha shook her head and blinked to clear her blurry eyesight.

“Please tell me you have some money.”

Harri’s panicked expression added more guilt to the pile. Aisha cleared her throat. “I have a 401(k) like you. And my Beemer is free and clear. The condo…” She trailed off and refused to meet Harri’s eye.

“What about it? You have a mortgage, right?”

“Two,” she whispered. “I’m already upside down on my condo from the divorce, but now that I quit—” She took a shuddering breath. “Cal was still working his way up in the DA’s office, and we never saved anything because he wanted to pay off his student loans as soon as we could. Actually, he wanted me to pay them off, since I didn’t have any, and I was working for Dewey and making more money, and I…I didn’t contest the divorce. I just signed what he gave me. I had to cash out his share of the condo, it was at the top of the market, and I thought I’d dig myself out when the partnership came through.” She buried her face in her hands and in a muffled voice said, “I’m an idiot. I know. I know.”

“You’re not an idiot. Don’t call yourself that. Cal’s a shithead. So help me, I’m gonna kick his ass next time I see him.”

The fierceness in Harri’s voice made Aisha look up and giggle despite her tears. “You sound like my dad. My mom still thinks Cal was the best thing that ever happened to me and I squandered it.”

“Squandered it? He dumped you.” Harri jabbed her fork in her remaining enchilada. “Because you couldn’t have a baby.” “Eddie left you for the same reason,” Aisha said.

Harri’s cheeks turned bright pink. “Not exactly.” She chopped the enchilada into tiny bits. “Eddie asked me to make a decision, and I said I wasn’t ready to be a mom. He didn’t start sleeping with his teenage assistant while I was in emergency uterine surgery because I nearly bled to death from an ectopic pregnancy.”

“Mina was twenty-two.”

“Close enough,” Harri muttered.

“You told me Eddie left you for Sarah.”

“I lied, all right. He barely knew Sarah when I told him I didn’t want a baby. He didn’t leave me for her. He left me for himself. So he could have the family he always wanted.”

Aisha sat back in her chair and stared at Harri. “Why are you only now telling me this?”

“Because I thought you’d—I was throwing away something you’d had taken from you and you were so sad I didn’t want to . . . I didn’t think you’d understand.” Harri poked at the pits of enchilada, not meeting Aisha’s gaze. “Besides what business do I have being anybody’s mother anyway?”

After everything the two of them had been through together, she never dreamed Harri would hide something as big as this. “God,” Aisha finally said. “This really is like a marriage. Maybe we need couples therapy.”

Harri started laughing. “Where did that come from? Girl, I love you, but not that way. Can’t we just be friends?”

Aisha threw a crumpled napkin at her and laughed too. “No, dummy. I mean we need to be totally honest with each other. We need to be able to talk about money and the future and what we’re trying to do here.”

Harri stirred the mess she’d made of her enchilada. “And I’m the idiot who threw away a good thing with a great guy because of my hang-ups about my rotten childhood.”

Aisha tapped her pen against her pad to draw Harri out of her maudlin thoughts. “Unfortunately, you’re the financially solvent idiot. I can’t really bring anything to the table.”

Harri snorted. “Besides, you know, the actual expertise we need to do the job. And the industry contacts. You are aware that the super industry hates me, right?”

“Hate is a strong word.”

“How about despise? Detest? Abhor?”

Aisha sighed. “Fine. You aren’t popular with the heroes and villains. But the villains don’t like anybody, and the heroes’ creditors actually like you a lot. Nobody dared to sue supers until you went after them.”

“Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Harri chortled. “My evil plan has been achieved. The cheap bastards now have to pay their bills like the rest of us.”

Aisha leaned her head against the palm of her hand. “We really need to work on that attitude of yours. Not everyone is as laid back as Rey or willing to jump at your command like Arthur.”

“Yeah, yeah. So where are we?”

“Not broke, but not well-capitalized.” Aisha looked up from her legal pad. “Any chance you’d be willing to mortgage your townhouse?”

Harri leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and stared at her little two-story place. “Let’s save that as a last resort.”

Aisha frowned. “We already know we can’t afford downtown rent.”

Harri shrugged. “Want to go look at Rey’s friend’s place?”

“Not really.” Aisha shuddered. “It’s not the best part of town.”“We may not have any other options right now,” Harri pointed out.“All right.” Aisha held her hands up in surrender. “We’ll look.” She hesitated for a second. “There’s something else we need to discuss.”

“You mean the target on my back,” Harri said softly.

“Yeah. Arthur found spyware on your computer and Patty’s phone.”

“I…heard that part of your conversation with him,” Harri admitted.

“I’m beginning to think the mugging at the grocery store last month wasn’t a random purse snatching. And—” Aisha watched her best friend, judging her reaction. “I asked Eddie to do some checking. Quietly.”

Harri swore under her breath.

Aisha waited for her to come to the right conclusion, but a knock on the glass interrupted Harri’s fit. Aisha waved for Arthur to come out, but he only pushed the sliding door back far enough to poke his head through.

“Ms. Franklin, would you mind if I take a look at your phone?”

A chill ran through her. “Yeah, go head, Arthur.” She rattled off her password.

Once he closed the door, Harri said, “Why would they be watching you?”

Aisha cocked her head. “Really?”

“Never mind.” Harri scrubbed her eyes. “I’m blaming it on sleep deprivation.”

They gathered their trash and went back inside. From the grim looks on the three people sitting around Aisha’s phone on the dining room table, the news wasn’t good.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said as she crossed to the sink to rinse her containers.

“The good news, if you can call it that—” Patty scowled. “Your phone was hijacked while you were driving to the city jail yesterday afternoon.”

“In other words, after I was arrested,” Harri growled.

Aisha stared at her best friend. Worry prickled her skin. “In other words, someone at Dewey & Cheatham is in league with whoever’s trying to kill you.”

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