Red neon bled through the rumpled curtains in the squalid motel room where Sheriff Alan Blanchart tucked his shirttail into his polyester pants and zipped his fly. He peeled a hundred dollar bill from a silver money clip and gave it to the naked starlet perched on the bed in front of him. “You got a name?” he asked the alluring mocha-skinned girl who looked barely old enough to buy beer. He buttoned his collar and adjusted his tie on the crisp uniform shirt he wore beneath his bullet-proof vest.
The girl stuffed the cash in her purse. “Who do you want me to be?” She held a cigarette between slender fingernails painted with glitter polish and pulled the sheet above her chest. She scratched at the custom wig she wore over curly brown hair to cover a patch of disfigured scalp caught in the gears of a faulty circus ride.
Blanchart tied his patent leather shoes and admired his reflection in the high sheen finish.
The girl giggled. Dark mascara underscored her smoldering brown eyes. “You must get hot under all that gear.”
“Better to sweat than bleed.”
“Can I wear your badge?”
Blanchart scratched his finger on the thick mustache that hid a jagged scar on his lip, a childhood souvenir from repeated contact with his pappy’s fist. “You haven’t earned it.”
The girl blew smoke. “So what does it take to earn a shiny badge like that?”
Blanchart fastened his Boston Leather duty belt. He stared at the girl through malignant eyes and said, “More than you know.”
He tapped his wedding band on the wooden baton suspended from his belt. Marred with divots and scratches, the length of straight-grain hickory proved more useful at subduing perpetrators than the pepper spray or the twenty-thousand volt Taser he carried. In the hands of a trained operator, the head-cracking baton delivered a blunt force message loud enough for the deaf to hear.
The girl flicked ash on the carpet. She wanted to leave the bed and get dressed, but the vibe coming from her scabby John compelled her to stay.
Blanchart kneeled on the edge of the bed. His two-hundred-and-fifty-pound frame sunk into the worn mattress springs. He touched the girl’s face and felt her tremble under his callused hand. In some ways, she resembled his wife—the woman he swore an oath to love and cherish for as long as he walked the earth. In other ways, she personified everything he loathed about women who traded sex for money.
His pager chirped.
He read the message on the monochrome display and gathered his sheriff’s hat from the dresser. “I have to go.”
Outside the motel, he settled behind the wheel of his black Police Interceptor with tinted windows, dual exhaust, and a whip antenna on the trunk. Static crackled from the radio in the mobile command center, where a rugged laptop disclosed the criminal history on anyone with a valid name, license, or registered plate number. Dash-mounted radar kept tabs on speeders. Behind his seat, a Remington 870 shotgun kept the peace.
He drove fast, running parallel to the railroad tracks that bisected the small town of Lakewood, Florida. Population seventy thousand. A place where families raised their children in the relatively quiet confines of Sheriff Blanchart’s jurisdiction.
He delegated mundane tasks to subordinate officers, affording him the opportunity to manage his extracurricular activities. When time allowed, he fielded domestic disputes and the occasional burglary that often resulted from a drug addict trying to score. Despite the conservative, well educated, and mostly crime-free demographic, bad elements prevailed in the housing tracts meant to shelter the working poor.
He knifed his way through a construction zone outside a mobile home park where plastic pink flamingos decorated the entrance. He gunned the engine at a stop sign and detoured through a golf course neighborhood segregated by winding cul-de-sacs and man-made retention ponds. Guided by the map in his head, he followed the quickest route to the stretch of manufactured housing situated beyond an elementary school playground.
He slowed behind an empty patrol car parked more than a block from a ramshackle residence obscured by heaping fronds and overgrown bramble.
He keyed the mike on his lapel. “This is Blanchart. What’s your twenty?”
“I’m at the back of the residence,” a deputy replied over the radio. “The house with the blue tarp on the roof.”
Blanchart exited his car and slid the hickory baton through the brass ring holder on his belt. He unsnapped the leather holster strap and withdrew his service pistol. “Hold your position,” he said softly into his radio mike. “I’m approaching from the east side on foot.” He kept the muzzle down, advancing beyond a row of metal trash cans near the carport entrance.
He leaned against the stucco finish and peered inside an open window at the kitchen littered with jugs of antifreeze and open bottles of drain cleaner. Hundreds of empty pill packets filled a box in the corner. Ether-soaked coffee filters floated in a baking pan at one end of the warped kitchen counter. At the other end, a snarled web of colored extension cords fed a dozen hot plates from an overloaded power strip.
Blanchart craned his neck and saw a man in a gas mask emerge from the other room with a sawed-off shotgun resting on his shoulder. Behind him, jugs of hydrochloric acid sat precariously on a wobbly card table straddling cans of benzene and camp stove fuel. “I’ve got an armed perp with a shotgun,” he whispered into the mike. “Do you see him?”
“Negative, Sheriff,” the deputy replied, his voice barely audible from the lowest volume setting. “The house looks empty.”
“Secure the back of the residence,” Blanchart ordered. “Wait for my signal.” He maintained a two-hand grip on his service weapon and side-stepped around back with uncanny agility for a man his size.
He followed his deputy through the screened porch and they advanced inside the house single file. Accosted by the fog of phenyl-acetone and ethylene chloride vapors, he covered his mouth with his sleeve and assumed a position behind a load-bearing wall stacked with boxes of bubble wrap and plastic tubing. In twenty-two years of law enforcement, he’d confronted his share of paranoid junkies who had morphed into superhuman animals from prolonged exposure to their own product.
“Cop!” a muted voice shouted through a charcoal-filtered mask.
Blanchart ducked just before a twelve-gauge blast tore a crater-size hole above his head and pelted him with pulverized plaster.
He hugged the floor. Boxes toppled over him as he scuttled behind a sofa.
“Sheriff’s Department!” Blanchart hollered at the Kamikaze moron throwing shots in a house of flammable vapors.
The shooter racked the shotgun. A spent shell casing hit the floor and bounced sideways, trailing smoke.
“Can you see the shooter?” Blanchart called out to his deputy, choking on the bittersweet taste of heated ethylene glycol.
“In the kitchen,” the deputy replied.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m good,” the deputy acknowledged.
Blanchart knew that despite objections from friends and family, his deputy had abandoned his teaching position to pursue a law enforcement career, arguing that a small town meant small crimes. In barely three years out of the academy, his deputy had nabbed his share of speeders and made his first DUI arrest a week before his twenty-fourth birthday. But the Sheriff knew that nothing his deputy had seen or done before could compare to the shit storm swirling around him right now
A screen-door slammed.
Blanchart peered around the sofa to see a second perp bolting from the front of the house. “Give it up,” he called out to the shooter in the kitchen. “Drop your weapon and come out where I can see you, slowly, with your hands behind your head.”
“Fuck you!” the gunman shouted, his voice muffled by the gas mask on his face.
“No one has to die today,” Blanchart reassured him. “We can walk out together—or I can haul you out in a body bag. The choice is yours.”
“I don’t trust cops.”
“You’re not alone,” Blanchart shouted back. “Wrong place, wrong time. It happens. Come out and we can talk about it. No one wants to see this go bad.” He pumped his fist at the deputy across the room and mouthed the word window. He drew a box shape in the air with his finger.
The deputy retreated through the screened porch at the back of the house and made his way toward the kitchen in the front.
“I’m not going down for this,” the gunman shouted.
“No one’s looking to jam you up,” Blanchart said to keep the conversation moving—and to buy more time. “I can’t help you unless you give up the gun.”
The masked shooter paced back and forth with the shotgun stock butted tight against his shoulder. He knew Sheriff Blanchart by reputation but never dreamed he’d confront the man face to face. “Let me walk and you can keep the product,” he bargained. “All of it.”
“You’re wasting my time.”
“I’ll give you names,” the shooter pleaded.
“Don’t want them.”
“I’ll give you locations.”
“Don’t need them.”
Blanchart saw the shooter blink behind the gas mask’s triangular eye pieces. He kicked a box of pill packets against the wall. The Sheriff had him cornered with one way in and no way out. “I’m not going back to the joint!”
“That’s not my call. Give up the weapon and come out with your hands where I can see them.”
The shooter unloaded two more shells in the sheriff’s direction, exploding a plume of sofa stuffing.
Blanchart hugged the carpet. His right leg burned from a superficial wound. “You’re not hearing me.”
“I’m not going back to prison.”
“I’m not sending you.”
The shooter loaded his last shotgun shell.
“Freeze!” the sheriff’s deputy shouted from outside the kitchen window.
The shooter tucked the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger. His head exploded like a watermelon, spackling the walls and ceiling with vaporized blood, bone fragments, and sticky grey matter.
The deputy reentered the house and gagged on the carnage smorgasbord. He braced a hand on his knee and vomited. “Why would he do that?”
Blanchart advanced. He holstered his service pistol and stepped around the body. “Did you get a good look at the second perp?”
The deputy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Caucasian. Late twenties. Thin build. Black hair. He had a tattoo on his neck.”
“I’d recognize him if I saw him again.”
“You did good,” Blanchart assured him.
The deputy stared at the bloody corpse. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“People do crazy things.”
The deputy reached for his radio mike. “I’ll call it in.”
“I already did,” said Blanchart. He snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “How did you find this place?”
“Dispatch put out the call. I was first on the scene.”
Blanchart grabbed the bloody shotgun from the floor and loaded a new shell from his pocket. “You see anyone else besides this fool and the one that got away?”
“No,” the deputy answered. He moved slowly around the stockpile of explosive chemicals. “There’s enough shit in here to keep a dozen cooks busy full time. If I hadn’t found this place—”
Blanchart raised the shotgun to the deputy’s face and pulled the trigger. “…you’d still be alive.”