Leslie drove to the Sandpiper Motel hoping to find Manny Morallen before the cops did. If Morallen had something tangible on Blanchart, she’d use it to navigate the bureaucracy of federal law enforcement more concerned with fielding terrorist tips than investigating allegations of a crooked small-town sheriff. She had a tough pitch to implicate Blanchart in the death of his own deputy. And she needed more than circumstantial evidence. She needed irrefutable proof to convince herself and the FBI that Sheriff Alan Blanchart was involved in a murder conspiracy.
If Morallen came up empty, she faced an uphill battle armed with nothing but anecdotal evidence and a flighty witness with weak credibility. She also faced a hard decision—drop Morallen’s case and forfeit her investigation into Blanchart or continue along the path of career suicide and pursue an underground investigation in spite of George’s verbal warning.
In a court of law, procedure had its place. On the street, she had to think on her feet and make decisions based on the facts presented. George was another matter. If Morallen’s case blew up in her face, her career with the public defender’s office would end abruptly, and she would finally have the impetus to leave the public domain and land a private law position. With her Atlanta connections, she could earn twice the salary and put herself on a partner track where she belonged, litigating cases she believed in, not slinking through city hall to hash out last-minute plea bargains for clients guilty of one crime or another.
In her heart, she knew what she wanted. And it wasn’t about the money or a corner office with a view. It was her own dogmatic desire to find the truth at whatever the cost. The truth never discriminated. The truth never bought its way out of a jail sentence. It simply was what it was. Black or white. Good or bad.
At nine fifty-eight, she parked outside the empty motel office and stashed her purse in the back of her car.
She climbed the stairs to the motel’s second floor landing and read the room numbers one by one until she came upon room 19.
Lamplight radiated behind closed shades. Television noise blasted through the walls.
She knocked softly, waited a few seconds, and knocked again.
A man’s voice inside the room asked, “Who is it?”
“I’m looking for Manny Morallen.”
The chain lock slid free. A frail man with glazed eyes and track marks stuck his head out far enough to check both directions for cops. “What do you want?”
“Is Manny Morallen here?”
“Sorry,” Leslie offered. “Wrong room.” She backed away, curling her fingers around her keychain mace.
“Wait—you got any spare change? I ain’t eaten in two days.”
Leslie shook her head.
“I just need a little somethin’. I’m starvin’ in here.”
“Sorry,” Leslie told him.
The door slammed in her face.
The room number jiggled on a loose screw.
Leslie touched the plastic 9 and turned it clockwise to read 6. She counted the number sequence on the adjacent rooms, baffled by her own inattention to detail.
She advanced to the real room 19 and found the door ajar with the blinds drawn and the lights out.
She felt the urge to run, convinced Morallen was either halfway to Mexico or dead in an alley somewhere. Don’t cower from your fears, confront them. You didn’t come this far to give up now.
She nudged her way inside the room and flicked the light switch. A desk lamp revealed an unkempt bed and soiled carpet with fast food wrappers in the trash.
A tapping sound drew her attention toward the bathroom, where she caught the reflection of Morallen in the mirror, slumped on the floor with a needle in his arm and a trail of white foam oozing from his nose and mouth. She checked his pulse and recoiled in horror when she felt the dead body twitch.
A masked figure with gloved hands muted her scream, smothering her face from behind, with a knife pressed to her throat.
Leslie sprayed the air with Mace and bit down hard, sinking her teeth into an index finger. The action prompted a swift response from her attacker, who lost focus for an instant and relinquished his grip.
Leslie slammed her elbow in a backward motion at her attacker’s groin and bolted for the door, barking her shin on the bed frame as she ran.
Half running, half hobbling, she scurried along the second floor banister and clattered down a flight of stairs. She hustled to the edge of the parking lot beyond the vending machine area. She ducked between two pick-up trucks and clutched her keychain Mace, cursing herself for leaving her Blackberry in the car. She wanted to cry and scream at the same time, but her survival instincts took over, compelling her to stay low in a cramped position on her hands and knees.
Heavy footsteps descended the motel stairs. Light rain dotted the parking lot.
Leslie peered underneath the chassis of a white Monte Carlo SS and prayed for the black boots to move away from her. But the size fourteen soles stayed put like a pair of sentries stationed close enough to hear her breathing. She begged forgiveness for every sin she’d ever committed, as if the vetting of her own transgressions would resolve her predicament.
Her muscles tensed when the boots stepped toward the Monte Carlo’s rear quarter panel. Dark eyes peered through a black ski mask, searching for signs of movement, while the moonlight shimmered on the single-edged serrated blade.
Spurred by the fight or flight impulse, Leslie sprang from her hiding spot and bolted across the slippery pavement toward the open road, waving her arms and screaming like a banshee at an oncoming car that swerved in front of her. A horn blasted in the waning seconds it took the driver to regain control of his fish-tailing vehicle.
Leslie ran behind a gas station surrounded by stacks of used tires and skirted toward the railroad track. Lights from an oncoming train preceded a loud warning whistle.
She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare and saw a large figure advance in her direction.
“Who’s there?” she shouted above the clamor of the approaching locomotive.
Blanchart kept his hands at his sides.
“What are you doing here?” Leslie called out, her voice strained with fear.
“I caught a domestic disturbance call.”
“Where’s your car?”
Blanchart blocked Leslie’s path while the southbound train rambled along the tracks. “It’s dangerous to be out here alone.”
Leslie stepped backwards and limped on a twisted ankle. “You’re not in uniform,” she said, her world closing in from all sides.
“I’m off duty,” said Blanchart. He gripped the silenced revolver tucked in his belt behind his back. “You should be more careful.”
Leslie felt the rush of air from the fast-moving cargo train. She had nowhere to hide and no way to outrun the sheriff. This is it, she told herself, resigned to the hope that her teeth would match the bite marks on Blanchart’s finger when the good guys found her body. “I spoke to the FBI,” she blurted.
“Good for you,” said Blanchart when a deputy’s patrol car approached with the light bar flashing.
“It’s okay,” Blanchart told the eager rookie who jumped out to assist him. “I’ll take it from here.”