Lloyd stood with Marvin in Varden’s office, his ears pricking for the sound of a house call that never came. His thoughts ran the gamut of possibilities. Did Jamie follow the plan? Did she find the rental car? Did she make it to the airport? Or has something gone terribly wrong?
“What’s up with this?” Marvin whispered to his roommate. He rubbed his eyes. Lloyd could see they were red and bleary from Varden’s late-night rousing.
* * *
Varden hung up the phone on his desk and launched the Web browser on his PC. He typed the URL address for the Florida Department of Corrections website and entered his user ID and password. He clicked the mouse to bring up the GPS locator with names appended to a local map on the monitor. He dragged the cursor over Lloyd’s location history and scrolled to the street address for the Seaside Cemetery.
Varden swiveled the screen for Lloyd to read. “You care to tell me what the hell you were doing in the middle of Salem’s Lot ninety minutes before curfew?”
Lloyd squinted at the blip in the center that showed his initials in parentheses. “My father’s buried there.”
“I see… And you were just paying your respects while Mr. Tate rode your motorcycle all over creation, pretending to be you.”
“I don’t follow,” said Lloyd.
“Don’t bullshit me, Sullivan. The cemetery closed three hours before you showed up on this screen. That’s trespassing.”
“I was standing outside the gate.”
Varden redirected his wrath at Marvin. “What’s your involvement in all this? And if I were you, I’d think very carefully about your answer.”
Marvin shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged his shoulders. “He borrowed my truck. I needed a book from the library, so I borrowed his bike.”
“And his jacket and helmet?”
“Just the jacket,” Marvin corrected him. “The helmet’s mine.”
Varden clenched his teeth. Veins throbbed in his temple. “You wore that gear to hide your identity.”
“There are only two kinds of riders,” said Marvin. “Those who have crashed and those who will. I prefer to err on the side of caution.”
“And your two-hour detour all over town?”
“I got lost.”
Varden sneered at both men, uncertain about which one he wanted to kick the shit out of first. “That’s convenient.”
“It’s not illegal,” Marvin retorted in a condescending tone.
Varden pushed in the keyboard tray and stood up. “That’s debatable. I’ve got one strike on you already Mr. Tate. If you’re mixed up in something you shouldn’t be, the time to come clean is now. Before I violate your parole for operating a motorcycle without a license.”
“You can’t do that,” Lloyd chimed in, glancing at the clock on the wall.
“You have somewhere else to be, Mr. Sullivan? You’ve been acting squirrelly all night. Are you going to man up and take responsibility or drag Mr. Tate down with you?”
The house phone rang in the hall outside Varden’s office.
Varden noted the pained expression on Lloyd’s face. “Am I interrupting something, Mr. Sullivan?”
“What do you want from me?”
“Let’s start with the truth about what you were doing in that cemetery last night. I have a warrant to search the truck, your bike, and your person, which I will tear apart piece by piece until I find the drugs you’re hiding.”
“Go for it,” said Lloyd. He started to unbuckle his belt. “Don’t tickle my balls when you’re down there.”
Varden grabbed the handcuffs from his desk drawer. “That’s it, Sullivan. Your time is up.”
“Ronald Varden?” a sheriff’s deputy called out from the front of the house.
“Right here,” said Varden. He turned to face Lloyd for the final time. “Your ride’s waiting.”
The deputy approached the men and unsnapped his handcuff pouch to withdraw the silver bracelets. “Ronald Varden?”
“He’s all yours.”
“I have a warrant for your arrest.”
“What the hell are you doing?” said Varden.
“Please turn around and put your hands behind your back. You have the right to remain silent—”
“What is this?”
“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak with an attorney. If you cannot afford one—”
“I know my rights!” said Varden. “What the hell are you charging me with?”
The deputy secured the cuffs. “Possession and distribution of child pornography.”
“That’s absurd. I’m a parole officer. This is my house. I’ve never seen child pornography in my life!” Varden stared at his computer, and saw it had reverted to a screensaver of naked boys. “What the… This isn’t mine! I didn’t do this!”
The deputy escorted Varden outside the house while other ex-cons spilled out to witness the commotion.
“I’ll tell Montgomery to expect you,” said Marvin.
“I’ll have your ass for this,” threatened Varden. “Both of you.”
Marvin followed Lloyd to their room. “Did you see his face when he saw that screen?”
“What just happened here?”
“He has internet access through his cable provider. When he asked me to fix the TV box, I added a special feature.”
“Varden’s not a pervert,” said Lloyd.
“He’s no saint, either.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Tell that to Montgomery. Varden cooked up his third strike just like he tried to do to you. Montgomery never had a chance.”
“So this is payback?”
“This is Karma. I haven’t done anything to Varden that he hasn’t already done to himself.”
“It’s still wrong,” said Lloyd.
“What do you care? Varden’s been riding you since you got here. You act like you’d rather get jacked for a third violation than see Varden get what’s coming to him.”
“You should have told me,” said Lloyd. “That’s all.”
“Like you told me what you were doing with my truck?”
Lloyd gathered his Triumph jacket and slipped his backpack on his shoulder. He dug a crumpled Benjamin from his pocket and slapped it in Marvin’s hand. “Are we square?”
“Yeah,” said Marvin with a note of contempt. “We’re square.”
Leslie sat inside her car beneath a tower of parking lot lights and a pole-mounted surveillance camera outside a Wal-Mart entrance. Without specific knowledge of who to look for, everyone in the retail circus appeared suspicious, including the RV driver who cut across the open lot in a faded Winnebago with Arizona plates.
She’d waited hours for an FBI agent to show without any communication from George, who seemed more interested in his own career advancement than helping her bring a bad cop to justice. Nothing in her life made sense any more. The justice system she trusted had come apart at the seams and no one gave a crap. Manny Morallen was dead, and the man who killed him would stop at nothing to bury the truth about the murder of his own deputy. Now her future teetered on the outcome of a midnight rendezvous with a federal agent she’d never met. An agent who George assured her would make contact and bring her to safety.
You’re losing it, she told herself as a tall, heavyset man in a hooded sweatshirt exited the Wal-Mart and headed in her direction with his hands in his pockets. She watched the stranger meander in her direction without a cart or a shopping bag or anything else on his person to suggest he came to shop. The closer he got, the more facial details she discerned within the drawstring hood. Caucasian. Late thirties to early forties. Dark hair. Clean shaven.
It wasn’t Blanchart. And it wasn’t anyone else she recognized either.
Tired of the waiting game, Leslie put the Lexus in reverse and backed away from the tree-lined median as the undercover agent gave chase.
She mashed her foot on the gas pedal and plowed through a convoy of empty shopping carts behind her. She slammed the transmission in drive without stopping and cut the wheel to peel out of the parking lot toward the main thoroughfare. If the feds wouldn’t come to her, she’d bring her case to them and drop a crooked cop in their lap.
She replayed the notes in her head, rehashing everything she suspected about Blanchart’s involvement in the murder of Deputy Carter and Manny Morallen. As certain as the sun would rise, she knew Blanchart killed Morallen and then tried to kill her. In every situation, Blanchart had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to commit the crimes. George’s friend or not, Blanchart was a worm inside the apple.
She took the interstate out of town and checked the destination route on her Blackberry. She’d spent her life defending a system that turned its back on the one client she knew for certain was innocent. And the one witness she’d hoped to leverage against the sheriff in court.
Despite the mounting evidence against him, Blanchart always found a way to counter her attack. But like all tyrants, she knew that eventually his reign would end. Whatever power Blanchart held in his own private universe would dissolve when the feds slapped the cuffs on him.
The minute the FBI had Blanchart in custody, she’d tender her resignation with the public defender’s office and start a new career with a private law firm. The same crazy hours, but much better pay—and eventually a more manageable schedule that would afford her the kind of life she always dreamed about. A life with more time for fun and less time for stress.
Her Blackberry signaled an incoming call.
She laid into George. “This better be good! Your guy never showed!”
She flashed her high beams at the construction zone up ahead.
The connection remained silent.
“Did you hear what I said? I waited in that parking lot alone for three hours!”
“I heard you the first time,” said Blanchart on the other end.
Leslie straightened in her seat. Her initial fear morphed into anger. “How did you get this number?”
“That’s not important.”
Leslie slowed her car and followed closely along the staggered concrete barrier. A section of unpaved blacktop rumbled under her tires. “You murdered Simon Carter and Manny Morallen, and I have the evidence to prove it.”
“If you live long enough.”
“Don’t threaten me you sick bastard. I’m not afraid of you.”
“Maybe you should be.”
“I have enough to put you away for life,” Leslie spoke loudly, her confidence building as her final destination drew closer.
“You have nothing,” said Blanchart, his voice calm and resonant.
Leslie changed lanes to pass a slower moving car. “I think my friends at the FBI will disagree.”
Blanchart took his time with the highly intelligent and elusive adversary more inventive—and lucky—than most enemies he pursued. “I admire your tenacity, Ms. Dancroft, especially coming from a public defender with an average track record and a law school rank at the bottom of her class. You failed the bar the first two times you took it. You never married because no self-respecting man would share his bed with you. Not even me. You spend all your time chasing fairytales, and yet you still don’t get it. Now you’re running from something you can’t reconcile. And that’s always been the case, hasn’t it? Running is what you know. It’s the only way for you to cope with the fear.”
Leslie put the Blackberry on speaker mode. She gripped the wheel and accelerated to ninety-five. Wind turbulence buffeted the hood. “Don’t underestimate me.”
“On the contrary, Ms. Dancroft, you underestimate yourself. You had such potential, yet you chose to squander it in public practice, defending indigent criminals on the taxpayers’ dime. You sacrificed your personal life for years with little gain. You have no husband. No children. No promise of a better future to look forward to.”
“I have your demise to look forward to,” said Leslie. “That’s all the promise I need in my life right now.”
Blanchart cleared his throat. “How far do you think you can take this?”
“Far enough to watch you get the needle.”
The connection went silent for several seconds.
“You’re in no position to threaten me,” said Blanchart.
“I’m five minutes from an FBI field office,” said Leslie with resounding confidence in her voice.
“Unfortunately for you, you’re not going to make it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you just missed your exit.”
Leslie looked up to see a pair of blinding headlights hit her rearview mirror. She stabbed the accelerator, but the car behind her kept pace, gaining ground as the mile markers ticked by. She checked her speed and fumbled with her phone, rattled by the sudden shift in the balance of power.
A crushing impact to her rear bumper whipped her body forward and buried her shoulder belt in her chest.
She braked hard and then accelerated a split second later, maintaining control of the car with a mountain climber’s grip on the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
She hailed the FBI on speed dial and heard the call connect when a second impact forced the car sideways, causing her to swerve toward oncoming traffic.
She veered right, then overcorrected to the left, slamming a section of guard rail at high speed. The Lexus spun out of control like a Matchbox car on a broken track, its twisted wreckage tumbling at high velocity, hurling metal and glass debris in a thousand directions at once before the crumpled sedan lost momentum and skidded upside-down on the roof, grinding sparks along the pavement.
* * *
Leslie opened her eyes to see the panoramic whirl of distant traffic. Flashing strobe lights moved in slow motion, reflected in tiny pieces of shattered glass scattered on the ground in front of her.
Pinned in her seatbelt upside down, she inhaled the smell of gasoline fumes through her broken nose. A punctured lung made breathing difficult. A splintered femur brought unbearable pain.
“Who else have you talked to?” said Blanchart, aiming a flashlight at Leslie’s upside-down face.
Leslie gurgled on a lung filled with blood. Her body shivered from the cold that invaded her. “No one.”
Blanchart reached inside the empty passenger window and gathered the accordion file folders. “You’ve been in an accident. You’re in shock. You’ll die without immediate medical attention.” He opened the folders and inspected the contents. “I can’t help you unless you tell me what I need to know.” He tossed the papers back inside Leslie’s car and holstered his flashlight on his duty belt.
Leslie reached toward her hip and unfastened her seat belt to relieve the pressure on her chest and free her to move about. The transfer of weight sent shockwaves of pain through her leg. Transmission fluid dripped in her eye. The smell of death lingered like the Grim Reaper himself.
She reached for the digital recorder that spilled out of her purse in the crash and slid it away from the car.
Blanchart lit a cigarette and stooped to face Leslie eye-to-eye. “Who else has seen these files?”
Leslie curled a fist and sprung her middle finger. “Go to hell.”
Blanchart stood up and took a long drag on the filtered Marlboro. Red-hot tobacco burned and crackled at the tip before he flicked the ignition source at the trail of spilled gasoline and said, “Ladies first.”