Blanchart pressed his face to the sliding glass door, giving access to his dark living room. He noticed nothing unusual. No lights. No movement. No sign of anyone but his own reflection in the glass. Everything remained the way he’d left it before a bogus 911 call prompted a late-night change of plans.
He slipped his hand in the pocket of his polyester uniform slacks and pressed the key fob to unlock the house. He entered quietly and slipped his shoes off. His shadow followed his movements with the silenced .22 in his hand.
“Your friend is dead,” he said out loud.
He pointed the gun at the living room, flanking the sofa and love seat combination. He moved softly, yet swiftly through the house.
“The bible says thou shall not covet another man’s wife. It also mentions an eye for an eye—if you believe in that sort of thing.”
His intuition brought him to the coat closet by the foyer. “I believe I have something you want, Mr. Sullivan. I know what you’re thinking. And I promise, I’m not here to arrest you.”
He searched the guest room and his study. “My condolences to your brother. I understand you two had issues. How did killing him make you feel?”
He stood still and waited patiently for the faint sound of movement—or fear. “I saw your mother the other night. She didn’t make it.”
He checked the peephole in the front door and turned on the porch lights. “You’re a cockroach, Sullivan. A fucking insect without a conscience. I see men like you all the time. Most end up dead or in prison. Some wind up working for me. But none of them put their hands on my wife. That’s where you crossed the line. I have a high tolerance for a lot of things. Adultery isn’t one of them.”
He searched the kitchen and fired two rounds through the pantry door, exploding a jar of grape jelly on the wire rack behind it. Spent casings clanged off the tile floor.
He inspected the sticky mess of purple Smucker’s and continued his search. No one but himself would leave the house alive. His report would reflect a home invasion to justify the use of deadly force against Lloyd Sullivan. The crime scene weenies would handle the details and dispose of the corpse.
He moved toward the pool bathroom that opened to the kidney-shaped pool inside the screened lanai.
He pointed the gun at the empty glass block shower beside the commode and stared out the window at the pool. He flipped the switch to activate the outdoor lights and heard the in-ground sprinklers come alive with the steady hiss of pressurized water.
When the doorbell rang, he killed the pool lights and returned to the kitchen. A second ring prompted him to collect his spent shell casings and arrange his shirttail over the silenced .22 he concealed in the back of his pants.
Dismayed by the unprecedented midnight intrusion, he peeled the blinds at the front of the house to see a Florida State Police car in his driveway. “If you so much as sneeze,” he called out to his unwanted guest lurking somewhere inside his house, “I will kill her.” He checked the peephole and unlocked the deadbolt to greet the two suits approaching from the driveway.
“Sheriff Blanchart?” the first man inquired. He flashed a state police badge. “My name is Agent Donavan, with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.” He nodded to his colleague. “My partner, Agent Niles.”
“What can I do for you?” Blanchart asked point-blank, hoping to steer the agents away as soon as possible.
Agent Donavan slipped his badge in his jacket pocket. An intrepid ex-Marine from the 41st Infantry, he walked with a kink in his step from the IED shrapnel still embedded in his knee. He spied Blanchart’s duty weapon in his holster. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“May we come inside?”
Blanchart gave a wooden smile. “I’m on the ass end of a double shift. If you could come back tomorrow morning—”
“This won’t take long,” Agent Niles interrupted. A Skoal man since high school and a father of three girls, he spoke with a Carolina drawl that set most suspects at ease, and at times, betrayed his true intellect. He stood a head shorter than his senior partner but owned a strong upper body from grueling workouts on the Smith Machine. His shirt-sleeve covered an Army Ranger tattoo.
Blanchart stepped aside and allowed both men to enter. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“No thanks,” the agents replied in unison, glancing at each other—they’d recognized the smell of cordite instantly.
Agent Niles followed his partner and Sheriff Blanchart toward the back of the house. “Is there anyone home besides yourself, Sheriff?”
Blanchart shook his head. “My wife’s been tied up out of town for a while. I’m flying solo until she gets back.”
Agent Donavan watched his partner as Agent Niles took a notepad from his coat pocket and scratched the bald pattern on his head with a pen. He knew Niles was suspicious by nature, and the pair of them had bloodhound noses for dirty cops. Regardless of the cursory background check that raised more flags on Blanchart than a crash at Daytona Speedway, the sheriff reeked of guilt.
Niles said, “I noticed your wife’s car in the garage.”
“I peeked in the side window. The Volvo’s registered in her name.”
“She took a cab,” said Blanchart.
“Out of town?”
“To the airport.”
“Business or pleasure?” Agent Niles pushed back.
“You said your wife was tied up for a while out of town. On business or vacation?”
“She went to stay with relatives.”
“For how long?”
“A few days.”
Blanchart put his hands on his hips. “You guys must be really bored to come all the way out here and ask about my wife’s affairs.”
Agent Donavan unwrapped a stick of spearmint gum and offered one to Blanchart, who declined. “Nice house. How much would a place like this set me back?”
“Not much in today’s market,” said Blanchart. He opened the laundry room and started the washing machine.
Agent Donavan chewed his gum, wondering why Blanchart felt the need to wash clothes immediately after a double shift. He’s still in uniform, for Christ sakes. The sheriff’s body language and tone of voice portrayed a man who didn’t rattle easily. “We’re investigating a recent auto accident that involved a state employee named Leslie Dancroft. We understand you responded to the scene.”
Blanchart looked incredulous. He poured liquid detergent in the washing machine.
“Did you know her, Sheriff?”
“I knew her by reputation.”
“What can you tell us about the accident?”
“I haven’t finished my final report,” said Blanchart. He came out of the laundry room and followed the agents around the house, careful to keep his back turned away from both men at all times.
“We’d like to hear it from you in person,” said Agent Niles.
Agent Donavan snapped his gum in his mouth. “Routine procedure. We came across some… inconsistencies in your initial statement, and we were hoping you could help us clarify a few things.”
“I don’t follow you.”
Agent Niles scribbled on his pocket notepad. “Then let me draw you a map.”
“We’re all on the same team here,” Agent Donavan said empathetically, to diffuse the escalating tension between his junior partner and the sheriff. He needed Blanchart to open up and disclose more than he intended without getting angry and stonewalling with his department’s legal advocate. “In your initial statement to the highway patrol you indicated that you responded to the scene before the call was dispatched.”
“Right place, right time,” said Blanchart. “I responded to an earlier call near that vicinity when I came upon the accident.”
“And what happened when you first arrived?”
“I called emergency medical services and secured the area.”
“About what time?”
“As soon as I arrived.”
“Your report stated you arrived on scene at 2:35 AM,” Agent Niles pointed out. “Is that accurate?”
“I believe so.”
“And Wuestoff Medical Center dispatched an ambulance at 2:37.”
“If that’s what my report said, then that’s what happened.”
“Pretty quick turnaround time, don’t you think?”
Blanchart smiled wryly. “Every second counts.”
“Did you perform any emergency medical assistance when you arrived?” asked Agent Donavan.
“What do you mean?”
Agent Niles lifted the pen from his notepad. “Did you try to extricate Ms. Dancroft from her vehicle?”
“The car was engulfed in flames,” said Blanchart. “There was no way I could get to her without burning myself to death in the process.”
“So you never approached the vehicle?”
“I kept my distance until fire rescue arrived.”
Agent Niles kept writing. “If you were at a distance from the burning vehicle, how did you recognize Ms. Dancroft as the driver?”
“I didn’t. Not at first.”
“How long were you at the scene?” Agent Niles continued.
“Like I said in my statement. I was there until emergency services arrived.”
“About what time did they arrive?”
“I can’t recall exactly. A few minutes after I put the call out.”
Agent Donavan strolled around the house while he talked. “We have a witness who claims they saw a man at the scene before Ms. Dancroft’s vehicle caught fire.”
“Then perhaps you should be questioning him,” said Blanchart.
“The witness claims he saw a man in uniform,” Agent Donavan explained.
“Witnesses portend to see a lot of things,” said Blanchart. “That doesn’t make them true.”
“Point taken,” said Agent Donavan. “But this guy is one of those retired Space Coast engineers with nothing better to do than set his watch to beep every hour. I hate the anal retentive type. Who gives a shit when the hour rolls around? If I need to know what time it is, I look at my watch.” He exchanged glances with his partner and posed the follow-up question to Blanchart. “Is there anything more you’d like to share?”
Blanchart reached behind his back, pretending to scratch an itch. His fingers touched the semi-auto .22. “Not really…”
Agent Niles removed a wedding photo from the fireplace mantel. “You have a beautiful wife,” he said with his Carolina drawl.
“She’s a keeper,” said Blanchart.
Agent Niles put the photo back. “Your department’s had a tough year. Four murders in three months, including one of your own deputies killed in the line of duty. Any leads so far?”
Blanchart followed the men into the kitchen. “You know I can’t discuss an open investigation.”
Agent Donavan stared out at the pool. “We’re not looking to jam up one of our own.”
“I appreciate your concern,” said Blanchart.
Agent Donavan noted the shed in the back yard. “A couple weeks ago, Ms. Dancroft approached the FBI with some disturbing accusations about your department. The feds weren’t eager to get involved so they punted back to us.”
“What type of accusations?”
“Does the name ‘Manny Morallen’ ring a bell?” asked Agent Niles. He poked his head inside the pantry.
“He killed my deputy.”
“I’m sure you’re also aware Manny Morallen turned up dead in a motel room three days ago,” said Agent Donavan. He chewed vigorously on his flavorless wad of gum. “Ms. Dancroft was his attorney.”
“Morallen was a drug addict,” said Blanchart. “It happens.”
Agent Niles poked his finger at the bullet holes in the pantry door. “According to her written statement, Ms. Dancroft seemed convinced you were directly involved in Morallen’s murder. She also claimed in her statement you tried to kill her.”
Blanchart forced a laugh. “Me?”
“Did I say something funny?”
“She was defending a cop killer. She was desperate to draw attention away from my primary suspect. You can’t take her accusations seriously.”
“We take everything seriously,” said Agent Niles. He reached inside his jacket, ostensibly to scratch his armpit, and discretely unsnapped his holster. “We traced a cell phone call from Ms. Dancroft’s phone to an FBI field office around the time of her accident.”
Agent Donavan stopped chewing and stared at Blanchart. “Why would a woman trapped inside a burning car bother to dial the FBI and not 911 instead? For that matter, how would she have the presence of mind to dial anything when she’s choking on all that smoke?”
“You’d have to ask her yourself.”
“We will as soon as she’s able to talk,” said Agent Niles.
“She’s still alive?”
“She’s in critical condition,” said Agent Donavan, “but still very much alive. Are you surprised?” He turned his head when he heard a muffled whimper above the sound of the washing machinenoise. “Is there anyone else in the house?”
Blanchart waited patiently for the right opportunity to present itself, holding back the urge to do what came natural. “Just us girls.”
Agent Donavan signaled to his partner, who stepped forward. “Let’s take a ride, Sheriff.”
“You have someplace else to be?”
“I’m the sheriff in this town. I have everywhere else to be.”
Agent Donavan circled the kitchen island. For the first time, he noticed a trace of blood on the back of the sheriff’s sleeve. “You’ve got something on your sleeve.” He pointed with his index finger. “By your wrist.”
Blanchart looked down. “I cut my finger.”
“Which one?” asked Agent Niles. “We’re going to need you to come with us.”
Agent Donavan held his hand out. “I need you to surrender your service weapon.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“If you’ll surrender your weapon…”
Blanchart unbuckled his holster strap and relinquished his duty pistol. He pinched his fingers above his nose and looked down, pretending to stifle the onset of a teary breakdown. “I need a second,” he said, stepping away from the men to enter the pool bathroom.
“Stop right there,” said Agent Niles. He reached for his own service weapon, but Blanchart’s uncanny quickness prevailed.
Before either agent could react to the imminent threat, Blanchart drew the silenced .22 and cycled the trigger twice, shooting both men through the heart.
Smoke curled from the muzzle.
Blanchart stepped over the bodies and shot each man in the head two more times for good measure. Then he tore open the lower space inside the kitchen island and hauled Samantha out by her hair. He pressed the hot muzzle to her ear. “Where is he?”
“Right here!” Lloyd shouted from the pool bath entrance. He threw a carving knife end-over-end at Blanchart but the handle landed first.
Blanchart raised the gun at Lloyd.
Samantha knocked it away.
Lloyd charged at Blanchart, slamming the sheriff against the counter. He pummeled the sheriff with a flurry of elbows and fists before Blanchart pulled his hickory baton and jabbed it at Lloyd’s solar plexus.
Lloyd retreated and grabbed a two-quart sauce pan from the dish rack. He swung the pan at Blanchart’s face and nicked his chin.
Blanchart cracked his baton against Lloyd’s head.
Lloyd slipped in a pool of blood and tripped over Agent Donavan’s body.
“Drop it!” Samantha shouted. Her hands trembled around the checkered composite grip of Blanchart’s duty weapon.
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Blanchart taunted her. He lunged with the baton.
Samantha fired randomly, punching holes in the walls and ceiling before Blanchart knocked the gun away and threw her to the ground.
Lloyd grabbed Agent Donovan’s gun and turned it on Blanchart. “Last chance.”
Blanchart raised the baton in a fit of rage.
Lloyd emptied the clip at Blanchart’s body and watched the sheriff collapse in front of him.
Samantha covered her ears. “Stop it!” she shouted, unable to hear her own words.
Lloyd snatched the car keys from Blanchart’s pocket. He stared through a window overlooking the pool and the utility shed near the back of the property line. “Did you check the shed?”
“What shed?” Samantha yelled above the ringing in her ears.
Lloyd grabbed her hand and ran outside. He entered the open storage space and stared at a toppled workbench with an old bullet press and an assortment of dirty surgical tools wrapped in a bloody rag.
He shoved the workbench aside and moved the heavy plywood to reveal the makeshift coffin beneath.
Samantha covered her mouth at the ghastly sight of a body wrapped in a plastic sheet.
Lloyd tugged at the sheet around the head. “It’s not her,” he said, wincing at Marvin Tate’s dead face. “Let’s go…”
“What about Jamie?”
“We’ll find her,” Lloyd said convincingly as he led Samantha around the house and back toward the driveway.
“Look out!” Samantha shouted when she saw Blanchart charge from the opposite side, doused from the automatic sprinklers.
Lloyd exchanged shots with Blanchart.
Samantha caught a high pressure round in the eye. The bullet ruptured her socket and lodged at the back of her brain.
Lloyd fired the last round from Agent Donavan’s gun and dove inside the sheriff’s cruiser to unlock the Remington pump-action from the center mounting post. He racked the shotgun to chamber the first shell as bullets peppered the windshield.
“It’s over!” Blanchart shouted across the driveway in his Level II vest and reloaded.
Lloyd rolled away from the sheriff’s cruiser and ducked behind the state police car for a better angle. He fired consecutive volleys from the pump-action twelve-gauge, striking Blanchart in the arm. “That’s for Samantha,” Lloyd shouted with venom in his veins.
Blanchart fired back off-balance at Lloyd who charged his position.
“Drop it!” Lloyd demanded.
Blanchart tossed the silenced .22. His arm bled profusely through his uniform sleeve. “You don’t have the balls to finish this.”
Lloyd rammed the shotgun’s business end at Blanchart’s chest, branding a small circle above the sheriff’s badge. Water rained down on both men. “Where is she?”
Blanchart laughed. “Pull the trigger and you’ll never see her again.”
The faint wail of police sirens grew louder.
Lloyd pressed his boot on Blanchart’s injured arm. “Where is she?”
Blanchart endured the pain. “This falls on you.”
Lloyd shifted more weight on his foot. “Wrong answer.”
“I decide who lives and dies,” Blanchart growled.
Lloyd eased the shotgun barrel in Blanchart’s mouth. “Not if I can help it.” He squeezed the trigger and heard the click of an empty chamber.
Blanchart laughed with his mouth around the barrel.
Lloyd pumped the firearm and fired again to produce the same result. Out of time and out of options, he slammed the shotgun stock at Blanchart’s face and knocked him cold. Then he commandeered the sheriff’s bullet-ridden cruiser and tore out of the driveway in reverse, crushing the mailbox as he centered the wheel and peeled away from the secluded subdivision.
He fiddled with the police radio, his fingers smeared with blood not his own, and accelerated hard to distance himself from the carnage he left behind. His own anger had got the better of him in a moment of vengeance. In reality he had nothing to gain by killing Blanchart. And little to convince himself Jamie was still alive.
He’d witnessed more bloodshed in twenty-four hours than he had after ten years in prison. His gut feelings taught him when to fight and when to leave well enough alone. He’d fought for Jamie to the best of his ability without regard for the consequences of his actions. Now he blamed himself for her predicament, knowing nothing he could do would bring her back.
Distracted by a thump thump thump coming from the rear of the car, he adjusted the volume on the police radio and tried to discern the origin.
A flat? A busted tailpipe?
The pounding persisted. Too soft for a flat tire. Too random for a pebble in the tread. Too loud to be his imagination.
He slowed the car.
The thumping stopped for a moment, then continued.
Thump thump thump thump thump…
This time he sat bolt upright and pulled to the shoulder. He jammed the transmission in park and jumped out.
He popped the trunk and found Jamie bound and gagged with her arms and legs covered in welts, her terrified eyes staring back at him with a rag taped inside her mouth.