Sarah soothed the baby in her crib. “I know. I know, honey.” She rubbed the screaming baby’s belly. Sarah touched behind the baby’s ears with the backs of her fingers. Fever. Picking up the baby, she touched her cheek to the baby’s downy, tear-wet cheek. Jasmine felt warm, but not hot, but still not well enough to take out in the wind and rain. Sarah did not want to risk another bout of bronchitis.
Veronica, Sarah’s five-year-old, would get up soon. Today was the class field trip to the circus. Missing that would leave Veronica heartbroken.
Holding Jasmine close to her chest, Sarah settled into the rocking chair. Gramma Marie gave it to her when she was pregnant with Veronica and it soothed the children as much as it soothed her when Gramma Marie rocked her as a child. Sarah checked Jasmine’s diaper. It was dry and clean and smelled baby powder. Jasmine hiccupped between sobs, winding down like a toy with a fading battery, her little shoulders hitching with each half-hearted sob. Sarah rocked and hummed. The half sobs dissolved into an occasional snuffle as Jasmine sucked her two middle fingers.
Gray light filled the nursery, creeping across the floor beneath the bottom of the shade, Jasmine was asleep. Her cheek was not as hot and she barely moved as Sarah rose from the chair and tucked her back into her crib.
“Mommy, is it time to go to school yet?” Veronica leaned against the door frame rubbing her eyes.
“Did you go to the bathroom?”
“Yes, Mommy. Will you help me get dressed?”
Sarah led Veronica back to her room and showed her the jeans and flannel top she’d laid out the night before.
“I want to wear my new dress.”
“Not this time, Nikki. It will be too cold. Put on what I laid out while I get breakfast.”
Veronica mumbled an incoherent protest, stopping as soon as she looked up into Sarah’s eyes. She knew better than to argue or she’d end up staying home and miss the field trip. Fumbling with the snaps on her nightie, she finally got them undone and tugged it over her head. She stopped short just as it was about to slip to the floor. She peered cautiously at the doorway and heard the third stair from the bottom creak. Veronica was safe. Mommy was downstairs. She decided to fold her nightie up and put it under her pillow anyway. She was not taking any chances, not today.
Veronica swallowed the last mouthful of oatmeal and maple syrup as she put her dishes in the sink. Sarah laid rain hat, boots and blue-flowered raincoat on the table and helped Veronica into a fleece-lined jacket before helping her into the rain gear.
“Mommy, it’s too hot.”
“Veronica.” The warning was enough. “You’ll be out in the cold and rain and I do not want you to catch a cold.”
“I beg your pardon, miss.”
The grandfather clock in the hall struck seven-thirty. Time to go.
Veronica tried to tie the strings her under chin but could not get them right. When she tied the strings where she could see them, they would not fit under her chin. “Mommy,” she whined.
Sarah quickly tied on the rain hat and snapped the slicker closed, reached for the umbrellas and handed one to Veronica, opened the door and stepped onto the porch. The wind caught the umbrella when Sarah opened it and nearly pulled it out of her hands while shielding Veronica from the worst of the biting wind’s mischievous breath. She got the umbrellas opened, took Veronica’s hand firmly in her own and together they walked down the stairs and onto the sidewalk for the two-block walk to the school. They stopped several times and Sarah hugged her daughter to her until the frigid blasts passed, walking quickly across the street and through the schoolyard gate. She kissed Veronica and untied her rain hat at the door to her classroom. “Do not forget to hang up your raincoat and umbrella so they’ll dry. Be good and keep your eyes open. I want to hear about everything when I pick you up this afternoon. Deal?”
“Mrs. Devlin?” Nikki’s teacher called to Sarah as she stepped into the hall.
“Miss Addison, may I speak with you?”
“I have to get home.”
“This will only take a minute, Miss Addison.”
Sarah checked her watch. She’d been gone fifteen minutes. Too long. “If it is not important, please give me a call. I must get home.”
“If Veronica’s welfare is not important to you, maybe it will be to your husband. Excuse me, ex-husband.”
The muscles in Sarah’s jaw pulsed as she ground her teeth. She forced a smile. “Everything about my daughter is important.”
“I’m afraid the permission slip is not valid. You signed your maiden name and that is not the name on record with the office.” The teacher was a thick-waisted woman with spindly legs and short hair that clung like an oil slick to her bulbous head. Her dark complexion shone with perspiration. As she held out a piece of paper, her fingers trembled. She licked beads of sweat from her ample upper lip. Sarah glimpsed deep purple lipstick smeared over the upper teeth.
“Why did you not bring this to my attention before, Mrs. Fornier? I returned the paper to you two weeks ago?”
“I-I did not . . . .” The teacher drew herself up to her full five feet four inch height and thrust out her small pointed breasts. “I did not catch it until now. I have called your ex-husband James. He is on his way.”
“You had no right.” Sarah resisted the urge to slap the teacher. Instead she grabbed the paper and a pen from the teacher’s hand and signed the paper against the door frame. She thrust the paper and pen at Mrs. Fornier and ran down the hall, opening the umbrella before she banged through the doors.
Sarah raced down the wet pavement, slipping twice and nearly falling.
James, the girls’ father, opened the door as she reached for knob.
“How did you get in?” The smirk on James’s face sent a thrill of ice down her veins and into the pit of her stomach.
Schooling her features to a neutral calm she did not feel, Sarah shook the water from the umbrella, closed it, reached through the doorway and placed it into the hall stand. She took her time unsnapping the raincoat, shaking it out and laying it across the bench on the front porch.
He stepped aside. “Please do come in. We’ve been waiting for you.” He was as ever the polite host, although it had not been his home since he moved in with some teenage girl he got pregnant. He had seen the girls twice in the last two years, both times in the last month when he had demanded she sign over custody. Sarah had ordered him out of her house and reminded him he still owed child support. He had promised he’d be back. For once, he had kept his promise.
He came back, this time with two New Orleans Parish police officers and a smartly dressed white woman in sensible boots Must be his lawyer.
“This is Nadine Charbonneau from the Children’s Services, Sarah. She is here to take the girls.”
“You have exactly sixty seconds to explain yourself, James.”
An officer came down the stairs holding Jasmine, her diaper bag and Veronica’s little suitcase. Sarah slapped James and reached for her daughter. One of the officers grabbed her shoulder. Another officer came from the kitchen with a baggie full of what looked like herbs.
Sarah laughed. “Since when is it illegal to have oregano?”
“Oregano, Sarah? How about pot? How could you smoke that around our children? The drinking was bad enough, but pot? You obviously do not care about them if you’re getting high and drunk all the time.”
“How would you know, James? You have not been near them or me for two years. You’re more interested in your club and that teenage whore.”
“Letitia is my wife.”
“And you knew exactly who I meant. Did not you?” Sarah turned her back on James and questioned the officers. “Do not you see what is going on here?” She appealed to the social worker. “You’ve seen my house. How say I’m unfit? Have you see where he lives?”
“That is not necessary, Mrs. Devlin. You will have a chance to defend yourself in court.”
The officers pummeled Sarah with words. Child endangerment. Possession of illegal substances with intent to sell. Abandonment. Child abuse.
“I need to call my lawyer.”
“You’ll get a phone call when you get to jail.” James reached for Jasmine and she shrank back crying.
“Do not touch her, James. I’m warning you.”
“I’m warning you. You should’ve signed those papers, Sarah, and this could have been avoided. You think you’re so smart. Well, I’m smarter.”
The door opened and an officer urged Veronica through the door. Her face was wet with tears and snot. She started to run to her mother when James stuck out his leg to stop her. The officer scooped her up in one arm and put her down the door. The little girl cried harder.
“It’s all right, Nikki. Mommy’s here.” She glared at James and started toward her daughter. The officer standing behind her grabbed her shoulder again and pushed her toward the staircase. She wrenched out of his grasp and was dragged back and taken to the floor. Cold steel snapped closed around her wrists.
It was obvious to her James had arranged it all. Sneaky bastard had watched the house waiting for her to make a mistake. Man was as patient as a weasel sniffing around a hen house. When she left Jasmine asleep in her crib and walked Veronica to school, he had everything he needed. How could he have known? How did he get the police and the social worker here so quickly?
The teacher, Mrs. Fornier. She said . . . . So that’s how he did it. “This is not over, James. Those are my children.”
“Not for long, Sarah. I told you I’d win. I always win.”
Sarah struggled toward him, wrenching out of the officer’s grasp and kneed James in the groin. He doubled over. “You bitch!”
Both officers yanked Sarah back and nearly off her feet. She stumbled against them only to be hauled upright, her arms cramped in the vise of the officer’s crushing grips.
James sidled closer and leaned down. A slow smirking grin twisted his lips. “That’s assault. Keep it up. You’ll be gone for a long time and you’ll never see my children again.”
Head up and chin out, Sarah stood up straighter. One eyebrow cocked, she nodded once at James. “Not while I’m alive.” Her voice was quiet.
James scuttled backward. He knew that tone. Sarah was most dangerous when she was quiet. He shivered. “Your choice.”
“You have the right to remain silent…"