Chapter 8. History Lesson
Loooooong chapter. Long.
Amazingly enough, Nick and I fell back into our usual friendship rather easily after our aborted attempt at becoming romantically involved. There were no awkward pauses, no longing glances or what I’d most feared—avoiding each other. I think we were both just relieved that it was somehow “out of the way” and done. The parameters of our relationship and the conditions under which we could become more than friends were clearly defined, leaving us relaxed and ready to face other challenges.
“I have something to tell you.” I said.
“Uh oh.” Nick smiled. “What did you break?”
“Nothing—but I just thought you should know that months ago, I asked Connor to look for articles about your father and Hector Dorantes. When you told me your theory about your father’s death, I thought we might be able to find some connections, but I haven’t had much luck.”
“That was smart—I’m glad you thought of it, even if it didn’t give you any leads.” Nick said.
“Now that Connor has given us some articles about the dock project, maybe we can find the reporters who covered the stories about Dorantes or your father and ask them some questions. That might give us the leads we are missing.”
Nick considered this for a while. “I like that plan, but let’s ask Connor if he knows anything about those reporters before we approach them. I don’t want to accidentally alert someone in Dorantes’s or Price’s organizations about our line of questioning because we talked to someone in their pocket.”
“Good point. Well, I’m off to the courthouse.” I said. I planned to obtain copies of the donor lists for Price’s campaigns over the years, and we were going to compare the names and their businesses with people on Dorantes’s payroll or his business contracts.
At the courthouse, I requested the campaign donation records, and I settled into a chair to wait as a clerk gathered the information. I had discovered that Sunset Valley was not ready for the world of searchable online records. In the course of my searches, I had also discovered an upcoming fundraiser that Donald Price was attending, and I was curious enough about the man to wish that I could attend.
As I waited, I answered Kendra’s texts, which involved ranking pictures of shoes for the wedding. I talked to my mother about lunch plans for Sunday, because Jennifer and Logan were visiting. Finally, the clerk came into the waiting area and handed me a folder with printouts.
I dropped the records off at Rocca Investigations after making a copy of them for myself, then headed home to feed Victor.
I came home to an unexpected and unknown visitor.
“Hi?” I said. My body was on alert, and I had looked around carefully to make sure she was alone. Well, as alone as she could be with a chauffeur.
“Edith Prescott?” The syllables of my name were garnished with a thick, Southern accent.
“That’s me. Who are you?”
“I apologize for surprising you this way. My name is Beulah Slater. I am Mrs. Desdemona Dorantes’s personal assistant.”
“Desdemona Dorantes?” I asked, and something about sounding out the name through my own lips finally made me realize that she was referring to Nick’s mother.
“Yes—she would very much like to meet with you. Preferably at her residence.” She gestured to the car as she spoke.
“Do I have a choice?” I eyed the chauffeur warily, wondering if he would stuff me inside the limo at some sign from Ms. Beulah Slater.
“Of course you do. Mrs. Dorantes requests an audience with you because she is concerned about…” she paused here, glancing toward the chauffeur. “About recent events involving her stepson.”
If only she took half as much interest in her own son, I thought.
I let my hand rest on my pocket to confirm that my phone was there. “Very well. I’ll go.”
Once in the limo, I quickly texted Nick:
Turn the tracker on. Your mother has supposedly invited me to visit. I’m in a limo.
Nick texted back:
Tracker is activated. I’m driving to your location.
I texted back:
Wait outside if it looks legitimate.
A few minutes later, the limo turned into the entrance of a neighborhood consisting of large estates that belonged to Sunset Valley’s most affluent citizens. I received another text from Nick:
Looks legitimate. Will wait at the park across street from Dorantes mansion.
This reminded me that Nick had likely visited the Dorantes mansion many times in his youth. I had a feeling Nick would give me a lecture about getting into strange limousines after this, but I had been too intrigued to be more cautious.
I wasn’t sure which of the imposing homes in the neighborhood belonged to Dorantes, but after a quarter of a mile or so, the chauffeur began to slow down in front of a huge brick mansion that was surrounded by tall walls and security gates. I didn’t want to be impressed, but it was impossible. I hadn’t seen anything this grand since the assignment in France.
The inside of the house was just as intimidating as the exterior, and Beulah smiled patiently at me as I looked around the entrance hall.
“This way, Miss Prescott.”
She showed me into a sitting room that was already occupied by a lone woman.
“This is Mrs. Dorantes.” Beulah said by way of introduction.
“I am pleased that you agreed to come, Miss Prescott—and please call me Mona. Please have a seat,” the woman said.
“Thank you, Mona.”
Beulah remained standing. “Will you want anything else, Mona? Should I have some tea or coffee brought in?”
“Miss Prescott, would you like anything to drink?” Mona asked.
“Oh, no, thank you. And you may call me Edith.”
“That will be all, Beulah.”
Beulah left the room, and I tried not to be obvious about my gawking—for some reason, it felt rude to check the place out. Instead, I gazed at Mona Dorantes. Mona resembled her sister, Nora, and it was clear that Nick had inherited his warm brown skin and hair from his mother. I wasn’t close enough to see if she gave him his green eyes, or if that was a gift from his father.
“I called you here to warn you off your current path of inquiry.”
It seemed that Mona did not believe in the power of a subtle hint.
“Oh? We were only trying to clear your stepson’s name.”
“And I thank you for that—it wouldn’t have come to anything, in the end. I am no fool, however—I know that you and Nick are still pursuing an investigation against my husband. I am asking you to stop.”
I frowned at her while I pondered what I should say. “Why aren’t you asking Nick to stop? Why call me here?”
She sighed and shook her head. “That would be as useful as talking to a fence post. I thought you might be more….”
“Malleable?” I asked, smiling.
“Sensible. Compassionate. I don’t ask this on behalf of my husband. I ask this to save my son.”
“Are you saying your husband will harm Nick if he doesn’t stop?”
“What? Of course not—Hector loves Nick like a son. He always has.”
“Nick doesn’t think so. Nick thinks that Hector murdered your late husband so he could marry you.”
Mona gave me a sad smile. “Hector has certainly committed a lot of sins in his life—and there is no denying that I am to blame for some of those sins. But he did not murder Jimmy.”
I must have looked skeptical, because she sat back and said, “If you want, I’ll tell you the whole wretched story. Maybe you’ll understand why I have made the choices I made. I’m not looking for anyone to condone what I did—that isn’t really your place or anyone else’s, anyway. But I’m tired of being cast in the role of the unfeeling, awful widow who supposedly married her late husband’s murderer.”
“I’d love to hear whatever you have to say.” I said. I wasn’t lying—I was curious about how a woman like Mona had ended up with a man like Hector Dorantes.
“Nick thinks that my romance with Hector began sometime after I’d married Jimmy, but the truth is, Hector was my first, real love, way back in high school.”
Mona continued, and her eyes drifted to some point off to my side as she told her story and had to think back to that time.
“My family moved to Sunset Valley when I began junior high, and by high school, I was the most popular girl in school. I was a cheerleader and in countless clubs. Hector was the complete opposite—socially, we were very far apart. But he was undoubtedly the handsomest boy in our class. He was a bad boy, too—he cut class all the time, smoked behind the school, and fooled around with girls under the bleachers. When he walked by, you could practically feel a charge in the air—he was so full of life. Or maybe I was just full of hormones.” Mona laughed.
“I was too shallow and worried about my reputation to date him publicly, but I was so drawn to him that I couldn’t resist trying him out in private. And he was willing to come over to my house when my parents weren’t home, and to show me the things he’d learned with the girls under the bleachers. It started out just being this little rebellious moment—this bit of fun. We had no idea that we had started something that would haunt us for the rest of our lives. We were just stupid kids, and had no idea that we’d sealed our fates the first time we ever touched each other.”
“Actually, that’s not entirely true—Hector must have sensed it long before I did. When I started dating Jimmy toward the end of our senior year, he took it hard. Jimmy represented everything I thought I wanted in a man. He was captain of the football team, and a good student. He had ambitions that I understood and of which I approved. Hector had already engaged in some criminal activity—I knew that he’d stolen some things and that he sold drugs from time to time. I viewed him as a fun diversion, but not husband material—so I started dating Jimmy and left Hector behind.”
“At least, I thought I’d left him behind. Jimmy became a police officer after high school and we married. Hector started moving up through Sunset Valley society as his businesses began turning profits. He and Jimmy actually became good friends as Hector’s influence in the community grew. They became so close that we ended up spending a lot of time with him and his wife, Sheila.”
“Our attraction to each other had never really waned, but it was easy to keep it in check when Sheila was still alive—I considered her one of my closest friends. She and I could commiserate about married life and children. Our children grew up friends. She was a beautiful person, inside and out.”
“If Hector gave me a look that bordered on something inappropriate from time to time, well…we were just lucky that Jimmy and Sheila never noticed. And we didn’t act on it for many, many years. It helped that I suspected Hector was dealing in things that weren’t exactly legitimate, so my disapproval of his criminal activities kept me from seriously thinking about him for a really long time.”
“Over the years, I came to realize that Jimmy was accepting bribes from Hector, and I was disappointed in him—I had married the one I thought would steer clear of crime, and it was hard to come to terms with Jimmy’s corruption. I tried to get Jimmy to stop—but he wouldn’t. He said he just wanted to give the best to his family. We were able to give Nick so much more, and when we took Sean in, the extra income was welcome. Still, I resented the risks he was taking, and we started growing apart. Our marriage began to crumble.”
“The breaking point was Sheila’s death. She passed away after a long battle with cancer. I had been here, at the mansion, helping with the reception after the funeral, and somehow we ended up alone. My head was full of how short her life was, and how lost he looked. I was so unhappy with Jimmy—I had never felt a quarter of the passion that I’d felt with Hector, and I felt like I had given up a chance at true happiness with Hector for nothing because Jimmy was involved in crime, too. Sheila’s death brought my life into cruel, depressing focus: life is short, and I was not with the love of my life. Before I thought better of it, I reached out to Hector—not with any romantic aim. I only wanted to comfort him.”
“It was like he had just been waiting for me to do it. Our affair began, and we couldn’t deny our love for each other anymore. Still, I kept fighting against it, and I told Hector that I couldn’t see a future for us if he didn’t give up his criminal enterprises.” She stopped here, and looked troubled.
After a few moments, I said, “Mona? Is something wrong?” My attention was diverted by movement near one of the doorways, and a man walked into the room.
“She is likely worrying over whether she should tell you the next part.” The man said.
Mona looked around, and rose to her feet quickly when she saw him. “Hector, you aren’t supposed to be here.”
“I know, darling—the meeting ended early. I’ve been listening in the next room for some time. I see you have stubbornly gone against my advice.” He said, nodding toward me.
“I’m sorry. I had to try.” Mona said.
“I know, my love.” He turned to face me. “Nice to finally meet you, Edith Prescott.” He said.
“Likewise.” I said.
He settled down on the couch next to Mona. “Well, go on, Mona—tell her the rest.”
“I think you should tell her. You have firsthand experience of it—I would only be telling her what you told me.”
“I will remind you that I think this is a terrible idea—and now you’re asking me tell her the part that is the most dangerous for her to know.”
“We have to try, Hector. You know what they did to Armand—what if they do something to Nick next?”
I decided to take a chance to see if it would loosen his lips. “When Mona says ‘they’ might do something to Nick—she’s talking about Donald Price, isn’t she?”
Hector’s lips thinned as he pressed them together firmly. “I see you’ve already made some headway into this matter.”
I felt a warmth at my shoulders and neck as an increase in blood suffused my limbs—my heart was pumping faster with the excitement of discovery. The link between Donald Price and Hector Dorantes had just been confirmed.
“Tell me why we should forget what we’ve learned.” I said.
Hector cleared his throat, then began speaking. “When Mona told me that she couldn’t be with me if I didn’t cut my ties to illegal businesses, the choice was easy for me. I began making plans to do just that. We both agreed that it was best to get Jimmy out at the same time, since I would lose a lot of my influence as soon as I began dismantling my empire. I know it sounds hard to believe, but we both loved Jimmy—he was my best friend, and I’d struggled with guilt over my love for Mona. Furthermore, he was Nick’s father. The absolute last thing we ever wanted was for him to end up in jail or…or dead. I told Jimmy that I wanted to go legit, and he said he did too. That it had been taking a toll on his marriage. Which made me feel even worse, of course.” Hector’s face was pained.
“Anyway, Jimmy and I called a meeting with Donald Price to let him know that we were getting out of the business. I had been funneling money to Donald Price through campaign donations and bribes to get special projects pushed through that made it easier for me to continue making money through my illegitimate efforts. We met Price at Falls Park, in a clearing off one of the trails.”
“When Jimmy and I broke the news that we were getting out and going clean, Price said something like, ‘I thought you might try this.’ I can’t remember if that was exactly what he said, but it was something like that.”
“Then he just took out a gun and shot Jimmy right in the chest. I will never get that moment out of my head.”
“Price stayed long enough to tell me that I was going to keep my businesses going, but that he would be the one making the decisions about them from now on. I was blindsided–I’d had no idea that he had been biding his time and waiting for an opportunity to get me under his thumb. He made it clear that he had me—he had managed to register the gun he’d used in my name, and he knew about Mona and me. If I didn’t do what he wanted, he would make sure that I ended up in prison for Jimmy’s death. And who wouldn’t believe him? I had a motive, and everyone knew I was a low-life drug kingpin.”
Mona squeezed his arm and chimed in. “I married Hector even though he couldn’t meet my condition. To do otherwise would be to punish us both, and he had tried to get out. I couldn’t fault him for staying in to keep us safe.”
While Hector delivered this story, I kept an eye on Mona. Her trust in him was complete. She did not doubt one word of what he said. I, on the other hand, had to maintain a healthy suspicion until there was proof of his version of events.
“If Price wants to keep you as the figurehead of your organizations, why did he try to get Armand arrested?”
“Because he found out that I was leaking information to the district attorney’s office. I was trying to get some of our operations shut down, but make it look like a normal outcome of the prosecutorial investigations that were ongoing. It was a message.”
I wondered if my eyes really could pop out of my head. “You were the leak. This whole time, it was you.” Another mystery solved. It hadn’t been a member of Erica’s staff, as Nick had suspected.
“Yes—but I can’t do anything like that again. Price’s message was received, loud and clear. This is why you have to get through to Nick—his investigations will put him at great risk. They will put you at great risk. I’m begging you to stop.”
I shook my head. “Nick will never stop. And I have a personal stake in discovering more about Donald Price and his dealings, so I…I can’t stop.” If all that Hector had said was true, then Donald Price’s involvement in my brother’s disappearance was looking more plausible by the minute. If he could shoot a man in cold blood, he wouldn’t lose sleep over making a young man disappear.
“If I only had me to worry about, I’d just tell him to go to hell and go to prison. I’ve done plenty to deserve a prison sentence. But as powerless I am now, I would be even more so behind bars. And I have no doubt that he would go after everyone I love in retaliation. Continuing this work is the only thing I can do to keep them safe.” Hector said.
“Let me talk it over with Nick.” I said, rising to leave. I was convinced that there had to be another way around this. If we could find evidence to support Hector’s story, then Nick and I could work with Hector to find a way to expose Donald Price. But if Hector hadn’t found any evidence to exonerate himself in all this time, I wasn’t sure how successful we could be.
“You’ve both given me a lot to think about.” I said.
“Please be careful. I don’t know how much I can do, but let me know if you are threatened—I have some men who are still loyal to me.” Hector said.
I thanked him and left the drawing room. Beulah met me and escorted me to the front doors, and I texted Nick as I left the mansion:
Meet me at my house. You’ll never believe the story I have to tell you.
Authorial Interjection: Massive chapter! In my “preview” I forgot one of the new characters–Donald Price! I don’t know why I didn’t count him, but we met a total of five new characters, not just four. Or at least, we were afforded the opportunity to see them…you didn’t really ‘meet’ Donald Price or Jimmy Rocca, but you did see them in flashbacks. The flashbacks were fun, but so much work. This chapter was so tricky because I am really running the risk of trampling over some of my storyline. It is a lot of information, but if you think about it, some of the major points were already known. Mona and Hector’s story casts a new perspective on those points, however, and I am excited about the remaining chapters. I hope you are, too. 🙂