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Authors: Magdalen Braden

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BOOK: The Cost of Happiness: A Contemporary Romance
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She ripped open the envelope. It was a letter from an Assistant US Attorney Debra Underwood. Words jumped out at her. “We’re preparing to indict you…multiple counts…identity theft…aggravated mail fraud…please contact my office immediately…” Meghan debated getting a sweater, she’d gone that cold. She read the whole letter more carefully. That’s when she noticed her mother’s name, Bianca Boudreau. The Feds had already indicted her.

So… Her mother had committed a crime—a series of crimes, it appeared—and the Feds wanted to talk to Meghan. That her mother was a criminal wasn’t a shock. But the letter didn’t say they wanted to talk to Meghan about her mother. What it actually said, if she read it right, was that the Feds were preparing to indict Meghan for the same crimes as her mother, a woman she hadn’t seen in years.

They thought she’d helped Bianca to commit the crimes.

Oh, God, she was going to throw up.

Wait—it was worse than that. They thought Meghan was the mastermind, that she’d been pulling off this scam from Philadelphia, believing herself to be immune to prosecution because she was so far away.

The horror sunk in finally, freezing her body and scalding her brain.

If Meghan didn’t do something to stop them, the Feds would convict her for multiple felonies and throw her in prison.

And as a convicted felon, she’d never get to be a lawyer.

Chapter Two

 

After a sleepless weekend, Meghan made it into her summer associate job early on Monday. She needed access to the firm’s computers and legal research accounts. Within ten minutes, she’d printed out a copy of the Feds’ indictment against Bianca.

For three years, Bianca Boudreau had contacted homeowners in foreclosure, claiming to be a law student. Not just any law student, in fact. Bianca had claimed to be Meghan, a law student at a top school who could keep the banks from evicting them. Just fill out the paperwork and then for every month they sent her—Bianca, posing as Meghan—seven hundred dollars, they couldn’t be evicted. Bianca then forwarded the marks Internet links and news items about how well Meghan was doing in law school. Once they were hooked, Bianca had them execute deeds for a tiny fraction of their property to individuals who had recently filed for bankruptcy. Notice of the bankruptcy and evidence of the deed went to the banks and automatic stays were issued.

The indictment read as though Meghan had been working with Bianca the entire time. Every detail, every word, stabbed Meghan in the gut. That her own mother could do this without a qualm, without a thought for either the people she was bilking or for her own daughter…monstrous.

Meghan had to think about it more rationally, though, if she had any hope of averting this disaster. Her biggest problem was that the Feds wouldn’t believe that fragile, crazy, “Little Ol’ Me?” Bianca could come up with this scheme on her own. They would assume the mastermind had to be the successful law student.

Based on the indictment, Bianca’s scam was brilliant, and it screwed everyone. The homeowner paid money he or she could ill afford. The legitimate debtor couldn’t get a resolution of his bankruptcy because, supposedly, he owned a home in foreclosure. And Meghan had no idea her mother had stolen her identity to pull off the scam.

Of course, from the US Attorney’s perspective, Meghan looked equally guilty. She got that. She also knew that she should have a lawyer, that it was the height of insanity to think she could go up against experienced federal prosecutors with two years’ worth of law school. Trouble was, she couldn’t afford an attorney—hell, she could barely afford to fly to Chicago to deal with the situation—so she would have to represent herself in negotiations with the AUSA in charge of her mother’s case. With any luck, she could keep them from indicting her as well. In fact, they clearly didn’t have enough of a case against her if they were only threatening an indictment.

As soon as she thought someone would answer the phone in Chicago, Meghan closed her office door and dialed Ms. Underwood’s direct number.

Twenty minutes later, Meghan felt like she’d been through an old-fashioned meat grinder. If she didn’t get to Chicago by the end of the week, they’d issue the indictment and a press release. Goodbye summer associateship. Goodbye law school and clerkship. Meghan wouldn’t have a legal career if she was convicted. And she couldn’t afford to let this go to trial.

She had to prevent them from indicting her.

 

 

A huge scarlet metal sculpture sat outside the Dirksen Federal Building. That was the last colorful thing Meghan saw as she entered. Once inside the US Attorney’s offices, everyone was dressed in gunmetal gray suits—even the women.
No nonsense
, that was the message. Also,
We’re not kidding
.

Well, neither was Meghan. She asked for the AUSA handling her case. As soon as she was facing Debra Underwood, Meghan pointed out they had no evidence whatsoever that she’d participated in the scam, that she’d received a penny of the money, or had benefited in any way.

“But it’s your mother,” the young woman argued. She was black, barely older than Meghan herself, and tired. Her desk and credenza were covered with file folders, Redwelds, and yellow legal pads. Stacks had started to grow up from the floor, like stalagmites.

Meghan frowned. “Which explains her access to my Social Security number and other information. It doesn’t prove that I had anything to do with this.”

Ms. Underwood shook her head as she shuffled the papers on her desk. “Where’s your evidence that you didn’t participate in the scheme?”

Meghan ticked off the points on her fingers. “One, there’s no connection between me and any of the communications to the victims. I don’t have a cell phone, as you know, and even if you want to argue that I used a burner cell, you know the calls originated in Galena, Illinois. I have never been to Galena, so I know you have no evidence I was ever there. Two, you have evidence that I was where I say I was for the entire period the scams took place, namely Franklin Law School in Philadelphia. Your boss’s alma mater, as it happens. Shall I supply affidavits from my professors as to my presence in class and in the Law Review office?”

Meghan looked at AUSA Underwood, whose mouth was open. When the woman didn’t say anything, Meghan went on.

“Third, you can’t trace any of the money to any account with my signature attached. You have ample evidence that my signature was forged in multiple places and on several accounts, but nowhere do you have my actual signature. Fourth, there’s no evidence of any communication between me and Ms. Boudreau. No phone calls, no emails, nothing. You have nothing to suggest I collaborated, advised, encouraged or helped her in any way. I’m not a scammer, I’m not an accessory to the scam, and I haven’t benefited from my mother’s crimes. Bluntly, I am guilty of no crime here. And you can’t prove otherwise.”

Ms. Underwood stared at Meghan for a long moment. She wasn’t just tired, she was exhausted. Overworked and terrified she was going to make a mistake. Let a master criminal go? Or try an innocent law student who’d appear very sympathetic to a jury?

Meghan nodded. “I know. Tough call. Talk to your boss. I’ll wait.”

“Wait here.” Ms. Underwood sighed deeply, pushed to her feet, and took the papers away with her.

Twenty minutes later, she was back with a paunchy man who looked unhappy.

“Ms. Mattson, I’m Sam Walczek.”

Meghan stood politely and shook his hand.

“Debra here tells me you claim to have had nothing to do with your mother’s scam.”

“Mr. Walczek, I last saw my mother at my grandfather’s funeral, and we didn’t speak even then. That was in 2003. Before that, I hadn’t seen her since my sixteenth birthday. We’re not close. I can’t prove that, but I can certainly get a lot of people to testify to the nature of my mother’s treatment of me.”

He grunted. “Sit down, Ms. Mattson. May I call you Meghan?”

Meghan shrugged. Probably couldn’t hurt. “Sure.” She sat back down.

Walczek took the other chair on the “guest” side of Debra Underwood’s desk. Debra hesitated, then sat in her chair nervously, remaining perched on the edge as though Walczek would send her for coffee at any minute.

“Meghan.” Walczek nodded slightly. “Right. Here’s the thing. We have your name, your Social Security number, and details of your life on various communications your mother sent to your—uh, her victims. As I’m sure you know, that’s prima facie evidence of your complicity.”

“I had Maurice Stephens for Crim Law,” Meghan said softly.

Walczek smiled for the first time. “Old Maury. What a character. Referred to the FBI as the
Federales
—I have to stop myself from using that word sometimes.”

Meghan waited politely.

“And I’m sure you got a much better grade than I did,” Walczek said. “So look at the evidence from our perspective. It’s just as easy for us to paint you as the brains behind the scheme as it is for you to portray yourself as the innocent victim.”

Meghan didn’t look away. “You have the burden of proof.”

“That’s right. We’re taking that into consideration. I agree we might fail to convict you, or only convict you of a lesser charge. I assure you—we’ll give it everything we’ve got.”

“Mr. Walczek—”

“Sam,” he coaxed.

“I looked up how many indictments this office has open. I know your conviction rate. I know what your trial schedule looks like. I’m a bad bet for a conviction. You and I both know that. If you pursue a conviction, I’ll find a criminal defense attorney who’s good and who’s hungry for a win. We’ll have the media on our side. ‘Straight-A law student hounded by the US Attorney’s office for a crime that was perpetrated against her, not by her.’” Meghan cocked her head. “I think that will play well on the news, don’t you?”

Meghan pushed back the shame and hurt that flooded in with the rush of memories. “I can provide witnesses to Bianca’s behavior over the years. Behavior that’s classic for an individual with bipolar disorder who’s off her meds. Also, I’ll present evidence that she was a neglectful mother, ignoring her only child in favor of indulging her own needs.”

She looked over Debra Underwood’s shoulder at the window framing a sweltering Chicago afternoon. “I learned early on that I couldn’t rely on my mother or trust anything she promised. She’d leave without notice, regardless of what she said she’d do with me. Without my granddad, I’d have been in foster care pretty much from birth.”

Meghan turned back to Walczek. “That’s all true, by the way, as I suspect you know from looking at my mom’s record of hospitalizations and incarcerations. So let’s cut the crap. You’re going to drop the indictments against me. And you’re going to inform anyone who inquires that you’ve cleared me of all wrongdoing. That’s no bar to refiling the indictment, so your ass is covered in case I’m bullshitting you.”

Walczek exchanged a look with Underwood, who seemed completely nonplussed.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Here’s where we are. We’ve seized your mother’s assets, slightly more than twelve thousand dollars. We believe she bilked people out of more than a hundred grand. That money has to be repaid. Plus, there’s the matter of the fines.” He let his voice trail off.

“None of which I’m responsible for, in either sense of the word,” Meghan pointed out.

“Perhaps not. But those people deserve to get paid back. So here’s the deal. We drop the charges, in exchange for which you agree to be jointly responsible for the fines and restitution.”

“No way,” Meghan said. She stood up. “The fines are going to be well into six figures. I don’t have that money.”

Walczek stood to face her. She looked up at his fleshy face, shiny despite the air conditioning. “Okay, we drop the fines. Agree to help Bianca pay the restitution.”

Meghan calculated. If she could finish law school, she’d be making decent money. Maybe she could defer her clerkships for a year or two to work in the private sector, pay the victims their money. She’d be poor, but that wouldn’t be much different from her life now.

“When you have a conviction against my mother, I’ll agree to help repay the restitution, up to one hundred thousand dollars. No more.”

“Deal.” Walczek shook her hand.

Meghan tensed, quelling the urge to wipe her palm on her black pants.

He opened the folder he’d been holding and pulled out a form. “Your mother has agreed to a plea bargain. We’re submitting the paperwork to the court in a couple of weeks.” He handed the form over. “We’ll add your agreement then. Sign at the bottom.”

Meghan opened her mouth to protest, to ask for the extra year she needed to graduate, but closed it without complaint. She’d gambled that she could handle this without a lawyer, and she’d lost. The feeling of failure, of losing something good, stung in too many familiar ways.

She reached for the pen and scrawled her signature next to the “sign here” sticky tab.

Once again, her mother was ripping the toy out of her hands. Only this time, it wasn’t a doll or a stuffed animal. It was her law degree.

 

BOOK: The Cost of Happiness: A Contemporary Romance
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