Josh dumped the last of Brenda’s silverware in his backpack and scavenged all the canned food he could steal from the pantry. A lit cigarette dangled between his thin, cracked lips. Scraggly hair fell in his glazed, insomniac eyes. Absorbed in a guilt-ridden stupor, his survival instincts took over, obscuring any rational thought about his predicament.
Unappreciated and now unemployed, Josh liberated the silver candlestick holders from the dining room table and pilfered anything else he could carry, including his father’s bowling trophy with a brass faceplate. When he finished at the front of the house, he pawed through Brenda’s dresser in her bedroom and emptied the antique gold from her jewelry chest.
“What are you doing?” Brenda hissed from her bed, barely lucid from her battle with end-stage cirrhosis. She reached for her glasses on the nightstand. “Where’s Lloyd?”
“Those don’t belong to you.”
“You won’t be needing them,” Josh mumbled through the cigarette dangling between his lips.
“That jewelry belonged to your grandmother,” Brenda scolded him. She forced herself out of bed and followed Josh outside, groaning in pain. “Where are you going?”
Brenda scratched her arms. “I have to pee. Don’t throw your life away. You owe your brother more than that.”
Josh started Sheila’s Mustang and revved the engine. “I gotta go,” he said without looking back at his adoptive mother who propped herself upright with the help of a cane.
Josh flipped his cigarette out the open window and found the rumpled road atlas in the heap of dirty clothes on the passenger seat. Rain dotted the windshield.
He drove away with a trunk full of stolen property, a carton of cigarettes, and ninety-seven dollars in small bills he skimmed from the register at Sonny’s. Haunted by Sheila’s image, he rubbed his eyes and begged forgiveness. Nothing made sense anymore. Not since Lloyd returned from prison. Not since Sheila made a mess out of everything. He needed time to think. Time to find himself again, without getting high or running to Lloyd to solve his problems. He needed time to forgive and forget. Time to focus on his future and what he wanted his life to become.
He stuffed his gun in the glove compartment and fumbled with the atlas, holding the wheel with his knees. The wipers stuttered back and forth. Condensation fogged the windows.
Leaving Florida was the easy part. Traveling cross-country to Mexico would take time. He wanted a place on the beach. Nothing fancy. A room with a bed and a television. He’d hock the stolen property to support himself until he found work. By the time anyone reported Sheila missing, her car would be long gone.
He slowed at the intersection and nudged his blinker to turn left at the green light. He waited for an oncoming car to pass while the light changed from yellow to red a second before he made the turn. When he glanced in the rearview mirror, he saw the flashing blue lights appear and thought, What the hell?
He slowed his speed, hoping the cop would pass him, but the car stayed on his tail.
Stay calm. You ran a red light. Idiot. Take the ticket and move on.
He pulled onto the shoulder and waited for the cop to get out and approach him. He turned his wipers on when the rain picked up and rubbed his hand down his greasy face. Shit, shit, shit. The cop’s headlights blasted through the Mustang’s rear window. Cars passed on the left, pausing long enough to catch a glimpse of the late night scene.
Josh lowered his window and squinted at the flashlight in his face. “Is there a problem, officer?”
“Where are you headed in such a hurry?” Blanchart asked him. Rain danced on his sheriff’s hat.
Blanchart inspected the car. “You always pack so much stuff for a trip to nowhere?”
Josh swallowed dryly. An acrid taste lingered in his mouth like bad morning breath. “I’m on vacation.”
“At one AM?”
“I got a late start.”
“Go ahead and pop the trunk for me.”
Josh pulled the lever.
Blanchart inspected the random contents that Josh was aware looked like a burglar’s jackpot. He slammed the trunk and strolled around to the driver’s side. “Step out of the car for me.”
“I didn’t see the light turn red.”
Blanchart brandished his service pistol. “I’m not going to ask you again.”
Josh got out of the Mustang with his hands in the air. “I don’t want any trouble,” he pleaded.
“Turn around and put your hands on the roof.”
Josh leaned toward the car spread-eagled. He shivered in the rain.
“Do you have anything sharp in your pockets?”
Blanchart patted him down and secured his hands behind his back.
“Am I under arrest?”
Blanchart escorted Josh to the back of the cruiser. “Get in.”
Josh scooted across the vinyl seat with his wrists handcuffed behind his back. Wet hair hung in his eyes.
Blanchart drove west, away from the interstate along a desolate road through the sparsely populated farm land. Random bursts of static came over the police radio. Wipers swiped intermittently. “How do you know Sheila Jarvis?”
“She’s my girlfriend,” said Josh.
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“A few days ago.”
Blanchart drove slowly, his headlights diminished by the driving rain. “Child services has her son. The doctor told me the child suffered physical abuse. He also told me you were the last person to have contact with the boy before the paramedics arrived.”
“It was an accident. The kid fell out of the crib. I already explained this to the other cops.”
Blanchart glanced over his shoulder as he drove. “Was that before or after you killed Sheila?”
“I didn’t kill her,” said Josh, fidgeting with his hands behind his back. “I haven’t seen her in days.”
“We found her body at the dump, Josh. She was crammed inside a cello case with your fingerprints on it.”
“There must be some mistake.”
Blanchart abandoned the main road and followed a private entrance that wound toward the Saint John’s River. “The only mistake was not arresting you sooner. You’re facing a serious stretch in prison.”
“I didn’t kill her.”
“Did you know she was still alive when you dumped her body? She lived for hours. Paralyzed. Scared. Until the garbage truck compactor snapped her bones like a box of popsicle sticks.”
“That’s a tough way to go, all twisted up like a pretzel.” Blanchart stopped the car and turned his body to look at Josh through the cage. “Your time in prison will feel a lot like that. When the jury sees the photos of her bloated corpse, they’re going to send you away for a long time.”
Blanchart turned back and kept driving. “Kind of hits you between the eyes, doesn’t it. What made you do it? An act of rage? A crime of passion? Or did you plan it in advance? No body, no crime, was that it? Maybe you got tired of her mood swings and her crying baby. She wasn’t fun anymore. You felt trapped. You wanted out.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Josh grumbled from the back seat. “I think I’m going to be sick.” He wrenched his upper body with his mouth closed until he couldn’t hold the tide back any longer and vomited all over his legs.
Blanchart drove on. “I can’t help you unless you tell me what happened. The state attorney’s a real prick, but he’ll listen to me.”
Josh craned his neck to wipe his mouth on his shoulder. “It was an accident. I never meant to hurt her. She had a gun on me. When I tried to take it from her she fell and hit her head.”
“I don’t buy it.”
“I swear that’s what happened.”
“Why didn’t you call 911?”
“Because I thought she was already dead! I didn’t know she was still alive. She wasn’t breathing when I put her in that case. What else was I supposed to do?”
Blanchart followed the unmarked path through a muddy clearing with a view of a wetland area ripe with swamp water that formed a feeding trough for wild boars, snakes, and other indigenous predators who preyed on weaker animals in the murky water. “I’ve been at this job a long time. I read people like the morning paper. I know what they’re thinking before they do. But what I can’t figure out is what pushed you over the edge in the first place. Why did Sheila have a gun on you? You might have a case for self defense with mitigating circumstances. In other words, the jury would have to consider the context in which the killing took place. That assumes, of course, that you’re telling the truth about the gun.”
“I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“Of course not. No one means to do anything. Killing just happens by accident.” Blanchart stopped the car. “This is the end of the road. Developers wanted to clear this land a few years back to build another dump. Ironic, isn’t it?” He marveled at the lunacy of Josh’s plan, which included turning left on a red light in a stolen car belonging to the woman he killed. “We all have choices, Josh. The challenge is living with the consequences. Are you prepared for that?”
Blanchart pulled his pocket knife out and unfolded the blade.
Josh stared at the knife. “What are you doing?”
“You’re an addict, Josh. Once an addict, always an addict. Chances are I’ll find the drugs in your abandoned car when I start my investigation. I’ll write it up as a drug deal gone bad. Or maybe you offered a weary traveler a ride in your car. God knows it’s happened before. You pick up a hitchhiker from the side of the road and offer him a ride. You engage in some awkward conversation while you play the get-to-know-you game. But the truth is you don’t give a shit who he is. You’re just wondering if the poor bastard you stopped to help will offer to pay you or not. Before you know it, you’re twenty miles out of town. And when you least expect it, the stranger in your car pulls a knife like this one, cuts you open from bow to stern, and dumps your body for the vultures to find.”
“We’re beyond that point, Josh.”
“I don’t,” Josh started, choking on his own words. Tears streamed down his face. “I don’t want to die.”
Blanchart rubbed the polished blade side to side on his thumb. Rain pounded the roof. “I can arrest you and introduce you to the world of musical beds from men three times your size—or I can spare the legal system and bleed you here.”
“You can’t do that.”
Blanchart stared at Josh for several minutes without blinking. Without speaking. Then finally, after cleaning beneath his fingernails with the tip of the knife, he threw Josh a lifeline and said, “What if I could offer you salvation? A way out of an otherwise impossible situation? Would you take it?”
“Please,” Josh sobbed. “Anything.”
“Someone’s been fucking my wife,” said Blanchart. “I know it’s not you. That leaves every other swinging dick in this town, including the men in my department. I want you to follow her. I want you to find out who she’s been with. And I want you to kill him.”