Lloyd put his hands on the storefront window of a Salvation Army shop outside Alfreda, Georgia, and peered at the racks of donated goods on display.
“Are you sure this is it?” Jamie asked him. She scratched at her neck and shoulder where her skin itched and burned from the red ant venom. She wanted to know exactly what happened to Alan, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask.
Lloyd pounded on the glass. “I see someone inside.”
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. We should just take the money and disappear.”
“Wait—” Lloyd persisted. “Someone’s coming.”
Jamie observed a slender woman with dark, curly hair and glasses advancing from the back of the store.
“We close at seven,” the woman spoke through the glass. She pointed to the posted business hours.
Lloyd showed her a note with the name “Sandy”spelled out in block letters.
“At seven,” the woman reiterated.
“Marsha Hollan gave this to me,” Lloyd insisted. “She told me Sandy could help us.”
The woman backed away from the window. “This is a donation exchange, not a homeless shelter.”
“Marsha Hollan is dead,” Lloyd informed her. “We need your help.”
The woman stared at Jamie and unlocked the door. “Who are you?”
“Come inside. Alone.”
Jamie looked at Lloyd and grabbed his hand. “He’s with me,” she told the woman.
The woman held the door and checked the street. “Follow me,” she said quietly, escorting her unsolicited clients beyond the store displays toward the back of the deceptively large commercial space. She pressed the # sign on a keypad on the wall and typed a numeric code.
A door opened to reveal an office space with an older woman in a wheelchair behind a closed circuit monitor. Deep scar tissue covered one side of her badly burned face. “Who are they?” she asked her colleague.
“They’re here for Sandy,” the slender woman with curly hair explained. “Marsha’s dead.”
The woman in the wheelchair rolled back and forth in place, contemplating what action to take. “Close the door. And set the alarm before you leave.”
“Are you Sandy?” Lloyd asked the woman in the wheelchair.
“I run an underground women’s shelter, not a dating service. Marsha Hollan worked for me. If you’re responsible for her death, I’ll have the police here in under three minutes.”
“I didn’t hurt her,” Lloyd insisted. He set the backpack down. “Everything, just came unraveled…”
“He saved my life,” said Jamie.
The woman nodded. “I helped Marsha put your safety plan together. She was like a sister to me.”
Jamie broke down in tears. “I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be. Marsha had her heart in the right place but her head was on ass-backwards. She was reckless. She took too many chances. But she helped a lot of women.”
The woman pulled a key from the thin gold chain around her neck and unlocked a cabinet drawer from her wheelchair. She gave Jamie a sealed envelope. “These are your new identification papers. Forged birth certificate and social security card. I need your picture to complete the passport. These aren’t CIA quality, but few people can tell the difference.”
“What about Lloyd?” Jamie asked with her arm around his waist.
“Your boyfriend’s on his own,” the woman answered. “This is not a witness protection program. If you want my advice, I suggest you two split up. Whatever trouble he’s in will find its way back to you eventually.”
Jamie read Lloyd’s expression. “I can’t do this alone,” she said, the thought of leaving Lloyd again too unbearable to imagine.
Lloyd hugged her. “She’s right, Jamie.”
“No. She’s not. I’m alive because of you. We’re in this together or not at all.”
Lloyd unzipped the bag and handed the woman a ten grand brick of hundred dollar bills. “You heard the lady. I’m all in.”
The woman cleared her throat. “Domestic abuse usually stays in the home. Most angry husbands will quit looking for their spouses after the first month or so. Most of these losers don’t have the time or financial resources to conduct an ongoing search for someone who doesn’t want to be found. It’s easier for them to find a new victim than chase the one who got away.”
“My husband’s a sheriff,” said Jamie. “What if he comes after me?”
“Right now you’re out of his jurisdiction and out of his life. I suggest you remain that way. Cop or not, his reach can only extend so far. In my experience, domestic abuse allegations won’t bode well for his career. Don’t contact him again. Not even through an attorney. It’s imperative you sever all ties with him, including any mutual acquaintances or close friends you share. Those people no longer exist to you. The life you left behind is gone. The farther away you get from your abuser, the better your outcome will be.”
“So what happens now?” asked Jamie.
“Where you go from here is entirely up to you,” the woman explained. “The less I know about your plans, the better. I recommend you change your appearance and use public transportation exclusively, at least for the first six months. It’s harder for someone to find you without a paper trail to follow. Don’t call anyone. Don’t write anyone. Stay away from the Internet. Buy a disposable phone and keep your business to yourself. If a stranger tries to strike up a conversation with you, keep it vague. And if by chance someone recognizes you, deny your true identity, no matter how insistent they are, and walk away. Keep a low profile. Don’t give people a reason to remember you.”
The woman wheeled herself to the safe and stuffed the cash inside. “I have a spare cot in the back and some medical supplies. We stock a small pantry if you’re hungry. You can stay here for a few days and recoup. You both look like you need it. I’ll take some photos and draft a new set of identification papers for your boyfriend. After that, you two are on your own.”