Varden heard Doctor Lacy arguing with her receptionist down the hall. Alone inside the doctor’s office, he examined the framed George Washington University diploma on the wall. He read the Latin inscription Summa Cum Laude on the glass-enclosed parchment and thought about how many books his shrink must have read to earn such a prestigious piece of paper. More books than he’d read in his life, he surmised. Probably more books than he’d seen in his life.
He paced alone inside the office. The doctor’s perfume lingered in the room with the smell of leather and potpourri. The trickling water fountain, an Eastern ploy to sooth the mind, further amplified his anxiety the way a dripping faucet drove him mad at night.
He found the sit-down-and-chat experience unsettling at best. To open his life to a stranger seemed wrong, even an attractive stranger like Doctor Lacy who maintained a striking resemblance to a college girlfriend he worshipped. A girlfriend he almost married until his future wife came along and led him astray.
He touched his finger to the stone slab in the Zen water fountain above the lateral file cabinet. The water felt warm, almost slippery in his fingers as it slid down the face of the rectangular granite and collected in a pebble basin.
Beneath the fountain, he noticed a gap in the top file drawer.
He tugged on the handle.
The drawer slid open a few inches, revealing a row of patient files organized alphabetically, “A” to “G.”
He looked around the room and at the ceiling, discounting his minor indiscretion as a simple byproduct of his own curiosity. He cited Doctor Lacy for the lack of adequate security and considered her lucky that someone with high moral standards discovered the privacy breach before a less respectable person took advantage of the situation.
But the temptation persisted.
He pulled the drawer open farther, then he closed it shut. Ronald Varden had no moral quandaries about the line between right and wrong. The boundaries for him were crystal-clear.
But the drawer stayed open, its latch improperly seated in the doctor’s haste to lock up and leave.
Varden pushed on the drawer and bent down to inspect the latching mechanism. He jostled the cylinder in his fingers, sliding the drawer on its tracks for a better look at the problem.
Then a patient’s name caught his eye.
He glanced behind him and stared at the closed office door. He dismissed the temptation and walked away from the cabinet, propping himself on the leather sofa where he tried to forget what he saw—and what he learned from Leslie Dancroft’s visit. As if his life wasn’t screwed up enough, the last thing he needed was involvement in an ongoing investigation. Deputy Carter was dead. Nothing would bring him back. Not even a hell-bent public defender who used Blanchart’s billboard portrait for target practice. He’d known Blanchart a long time, even before the man became sheriff. He was tough. He was mean. But he was always on the right side of the law.
Varden felt his pulse racing. Despite his own convictions about Blanchart, Carter’s death posed too many questions to ignore, and Ms. Dancroft’s fervor only added to the growing doubts he’d harbored since Carter first approached him about Blanchart. And now the longer he debated everything, the more he convinced himself there was nothing sacrosanct about Sheriff Blanchart’s patient file.
Voices in the adjacent room provoked a quick decision. He had one chance to take advantage of the opportunity or risk a lifetime of second-guessing his own involvement in the various events that culminated in Deputy Carter’s death.
The drawer slid open on its ball-bearing track far enough to pluck the narrow ruled notes from the green hanging folder marked, Blanchart, Alan.
He skimmed the elegant cursive handwriting with perfect o’s and slanted t’s. He could smell the doctor’s perfume on the paper as he traced his finger along her notes line by line, page by page, filled with random psychobabble that meant nothing of any consequence to anyone other than the doctor herself.
He took his finger away from where the underlined words almost screamed from the page.
Standard follow-up for an officer involved shooting.
Patient shows no remorse, indifferent. Exhibits antisocial/dissociative personality.
Aggressive impulse. Shallow emotional range, incapable of human attachment.
Pattern of aggressive narcissism, potential uninhibited gratification in sexual (criminal?) deviant behavior.
Patient warrants further analysis to accurately diagnose latent psychopathic tendencies!
Varden read the last sentence three times. He flipped back to the first page to double-check the patient’s name, grappling for a plausible explanation.
Voices carried in the hallway outside the suite, followed by the strident click of high-heeled shoes.
Varden stuffed the handwritten notes in the hanging folder and closed the drawer a half second before Doctor Lacy returned.
“Sorry about the interruption. Are you ready, Mr. Varden?”
Varden sat on the leather sofa and rubbed a sweaty palm on his leg. “I’m all yours.”
Lloyd started his shift at Sonny’s Car Wash the same way every morning, bored by the manual labor routine but optimistic about his chance to see the cherry red Volvo cross his path again. With Sonny out of town a few days sampling the delights of Vegas, he enjoyed a reprieve from the threat of unemployment on account of Josh’s sporadic attendance at work.
He punched his timecard and joined the rank and file at the wash bay outside. He grabbed a rag from the supply cabinet and a bottle of generic Armor All. A few feet away, the roar of industrial fans directed high velocity air at the roof of a Buick LaCrosse while the female driver waited impatiently by the tip box.
Lloyd wiped down the car’s interior in an orderly fashion without acknowledging the Spanish banter from the three-man crew. A dirty ashtray poked his memory of the cigarette burns on Jamie’s back and stirred the angry emotions within him.
“Ándale! Ándale!” workers hollered outside the car, prompting Lloyd to move faster before the customer grew impatient and thought twice about leaving a tip.
Lloyd held the door for the driver and waited for the next vehicle. This time a black Ford Interceptor with tinted windows rolled through the wash tunnel.
* * *
Blanchart stuffed a dollar in the tip box and waited for his unmarked cruiser to come out. He’d followed Jamie’s route on more than one occasion and recalled the familiar faces who worked at Sonny’s Car Wash. Today, one face in particular stood out from the pack of laborers who shared a common ethnicity. A face he’d seen before at Varden’s halfway house of losers.
Lloyd approached the Ford to wipe down the interior.
“That’s good enough,” insisted Blanchart in his sheriff’s hat and tinted glasses. He ambled toward the cruiser and stared up and down at Lloyd. He made a mental note to ask Sonny about the new addition to his staff.
Lloyd nodded to the sheriff.
“How long have you worked here?” Blanchart asked him.
“A few weeks.”
“You got a name?”
“That come with a last name?”
Blanchart propped his hands on his belt. “You’re one of Varden’s boys, aren’t you?”
“I’m on parole, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Do you know who I am?” said Blanchart.
“A customer with a badge.”
“That’s right. I’m also the customer who can make your job disappear.”
“Just trying to earn an honest wage,” said Lloyd.
“Then try a little harder. This car looks like shit every time it comes out.”
Maybe it’s not the car that’s the problem, Lloyd thought.
Blanchart nudged a piece of pork barbeque between his teeth with his tongue. The tiny scrap of meat had annoyed him since lunch. “How many days you got left in that house?”
“How long were you incarcerated?”
“Long enough,” said Lloyd, shifting his gaze to try and stifle his agitation.
Blanchart pulled the hickory baton from his duty belt and eased himself behind the wheel of his cruiser. “You have family here in Lakewood?”
“Sort of? What the hell kind of answer is that? You either do or you don’t.” Blanchart nudged his sunglasses. “Stay out of trouble, Mr. Sullivan. I know where to find you if you don’t.”
Lloyd watched the sheriff drive away and felt a wave of negative energy persist like radioactive fallout, contaminating every living thing it touched—and eroding what little respect he held for law enforcement.
“Sullivan!” a voice shouted above the racket from the dryer fans.
Lloyd turned—and was surprised to find Sonny at the end of the wash line with his game face on and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
“Get in here!”
Lloyd followed the porky Texan to the back office area and asked, “What’s up?”
Sonny flipped his Hooter’s calendar to November. “You were supposed to be different. That’s what your brother sold me. Instead, I’m five days into a Vegas vacation when your brother calls to tell me that the register came up short for the third time this month.”
“What are you saying?”
“I could have you arrested.”
“Eighty-seven dollars and fifty-five cents. That was Tuesday. We were short more than two hundred dollars on Friday. That’s not play money, Sullivan. That’s my money! From my business! You can fuck me over once, but not twice. I have this place on camera. All I have to do is watch the tape.”
“Go for it,” said Lloyd. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Sonny’s angry jowls swelled like a puffer fish. “You’re the reason I quit hiring ex-cons a long time ago.”
Lloyd dropped his rag on Sonny’s desk. “You want me to confess to something I didn’t do?”
“I want you out of here! If I catch you on my property again, I’ll have you arrested for grand larceny. Now pack your shit and get out before I change my mind and call the cop that just left.”
Lloyd pulled his sweaty shirt over his head and threw it at Sonny. “This belongs to you.” He grabbed his street shirt and his motorcycle jacket from the men’s room locker and mounted the damaged Triumph outside. Whatever beef Sonny had with him would find its way back to Varden eventually and heap another problem on the pile. Sonny was an ass but a boss he could tolerate. No more job meant no more money. And no more money meant more problems.
He pressed the starter button and cracked the throttle as a woman in a tan Honda Civic pulled into the spot beside him with her window down.
“Are you Lloyd?” the woman asked behind dark sunglasses, with a pink silk scarf around her neck.
Lloyd raised the kickstand with his boot. Prepared to back himself out and make tracks for home, he ignored the pretty blonde with long hair and heavy makeup.
“Jamie told me you worked here. You look just like she said.”
Lloyd kept his hand on the brake, despite his better judgment to light up the rear tire and lay down a strip of rubber across Sonny’s parking lot. “What do you want?”
“I’m Samantha, Jamie’s friend. I need to talk to you.”
“You’ve got me confused with someone else.”
“You have a cross tattoo on your forearm. You went to prison for your brother. And you’re the only one who looks man enough to ride a bike like that around here.”
Lloyd kept the Triumph in neutral. “What do you want?”
Samantha backed her car out. “Not here.”
Lloyd followed the Honda to a Wendy’s and met Samantha inside. He bought her lunch and found a window seat that faced the parking lot.
* * *
Samantha cased the dining area and sipped a Coke with no ice through a straw. She unfolded the wrapper on a spicy chicken sandwich and cheated her diet to feed the craving she reserved for stressful moments in her life. “Thanks,” she said between bites of chicken with lettuce, tomato, and extra mayonnaise. She shoved fries into her mouth and licked the top of her chocolate frosty. “I only eat like this when I’m tense.”
Lloyd rested his arm on the two-person table. “I’d hate to see you when you’re hungry.”
Samantha rolled her eyes. “How well do you know Jamie?”
“Did you know her piece-of-shit husband is the sheriff?” She chewed a mouthful of chicken and washed it down with a sip of soda. She pulled her scarf away to reveal the purple bruising around her neck. “He did this to me three days ago. After he raped me.”
She watched Lloyd. It took a moment for the news to sink in.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be. He’ll get what’s coming to him. I’m not looking for sympathy. It’s Jamie I’m worried about. I knew her husband was an asshole the day she married him. I knew he put his hands on her, but I never figured he was capable of this.” She wrapped the scarf around her neck and let the extra length hang down her back.
“I met him at the car wash this morning,” said Lloyd. “He seemed like a prick.”
“Does he know you’re banging his wife?”
“It never came up.”
Samantha gave a fleeting smile. “He doesn’t know. He would’ve killed you if he did.” She scooped the frosty into her mouth. Her taste buds savored the frozen treat while she diverted her attention from Lloyd to the restaurant entrance. “I’ve dated cops before, and I can tell you he’s no cop. He’s an asshole who should be neutered with a fork.”
“Who else have you talked to about this?” asked Lloyd.
“I contacted a battered women’s shelter through a friend of a friend in New York. I have to get Jamie out of Florida, and I need your help to do it.”
“I’m on parole. I can’t leave the county, much less the state.”
“I did a background check on you. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like what I found. If you care at all about Jamie, you’ll help me help her.”
Lloyd stared out the window a moment or two. “What do you want me to do?”
“Jamie won’t listen to me. I tried to get her on board, but that bastard has her under his spell. Jamie doesn’t see what he’s doing to her. Or the danger she’s in. Especially with you in the picture.”
“She’s scared to leave him,” said Lloyd.
“They always are. That’s what the woman from the shelter told me. Abused women view their situation from a different perspective than most. They blame themselves more than they blame their abusers.”
“That’s reality.” Samantha licked the salt from her fingers and reached in her purse for a cell phone. “Take this. It’s a prepaid phone. I’m the only one with the number. I’ll call you when I have all the details worked out. In the meantime, you have to help me convince her to leave.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“She trusts you. She wants to be with you. She’ll do anything to keep you.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“Just talk to her. Tell her you need her. Tell her you love her. Tell her you can’t live without her. Then tell her you’ll end it if she doesn’t leave her husband.”
Lloyd followed her stare. “I don’t know—”
“What’s there to know? Jamie doesn’t like change, and she hates confrontation. Every now and then she needs a kick in the ass. No matter how bad it hurts.” Samantha sipped her drink. “If you care for her at all—”
“Of course I care for her,” said Lloyd. He brought his other arm on the table and put his hands together. “We have to be careful.”
“If you’re worried about the sheriff, he can’t touch Jamie once I get her out of state.”
“It’s not the sheriff I’m worried about,” said Lloyd. “It’s the thought of going back to prison.”