Marsha Hollan parked her rented Nissan in the grass along the edge of a moonlit retention pond and killed the lights. She focused a pair of ten by fifty binoculars at Sheriff Blanchart’s empty driveway. “It’s hard to tell if someone’s home,” she said to Lloyd and Samantha who occupied the back seat. “The blinds are closed. I don’t see any lights on.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s not there,” said Lloyd. His leg throbbed despite a copious amount of Advil and a padded field dressing around his ankle.
Marsha scanned the other houses down the street. “Everyone else has their trash cans at the curb. Either Blanchart forgot his or he’s not home to do it.”
Samantha shook her head. “Jamie always takes the trash out.”
Marsha steadied her elbows on the Altima’s door frame. She’d dealt with men like Blanchart before. Men who flaunted their narcissistic attitude and kept their spouse on a leash. Drunken tyrants who believed they ruled the world and everything in it. But this time the abuser was cold, calculated, and sober. He also carried a badge and a gun. “Maybe she got on a bus?”
“That wasn’t the plan,” said Lloyd.
“Plans change,” Marsha countered.
Samantha gripped the front seat headrest and leaned toward Marsha’s ear. “Jamie would have called by now. For all we know, Blanchart has her locked inside.”
“We can’t just storm the sheriff’s house,” said Marsha.
Samantha bristled at the do-nothing attitude from the Annie Oakley wannabe she hired to do what no one else could accomplish. “We can’t just sit here.”
Marsha handed the binoculars to Samantha. “We need to be patient and see what plays out.”
Samantha checked the side of the house. “I’m all out of patience. What if Blanchart found out about her plan? What if Jamie’s life is in danger?” She lowered the binoculars. “We have to search the house. It’s the only way to know for sure.”
Lloyd grabbed the binoculars from Samantha and searched for any sign of movement at the windows. “He could be watching us right now. Waiting for us to make a move.”
“Then we confront him,” Samantha argued.
Marsha turned around to face both passengers. “That’s not a good idea.”
“Why not? You’re the one packing heat. He’d have to listen to you.”
“He’s a cop,” Marsha reminded her overzealous client, who’d obviously seen one too many action movies. “I’m a civilian with a permit to carry. He could shoot us for trespassing—not to mention aiding and abetting a wanted fugitive.” Marsha looked at Lloyd. “We have to be careful about this. For all we know, your girlfriend could be halfway to Mexico by now.”
“No way,” said Samantha.
“How do you know?”
“Because I know her.”
“Do you? You said yourself you hardly talk to her anymore. Women in abusive relationships seldom act rationally. It’s possible she changed her mind and decided not to leave her husband. It happens.”
Samantha swallowed her pent-up rage. “Her husband forced himself on me. I’m not afraid of him, and I’m not afraid to testify in court. Jamie told me about the videos in his study. I need that evidence to prove my case—whether Jamie’s home or not.”
Marsha unwrapped a stick of spearmint gum and chewed it hungrily. “Men like Blanchart operate outside the law. Your testimony won’t mean shit in court.”
“It will if I show him raping me on tape.”
“He’ll argue consent. Make it sound like he did what you asked him to. The sex was rough but not forced. You never reported a crime. You have no physical evidence.”
Marsha spoke with her hands. “That’s how the system works.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“It’s not about sides. It’s about what you can or can’t prove in a court of law. He’s the fucking sheriff, for Christ sake!”
“Who might have killed his own wife,” Samantha added.
“We don’t know that.”
Lloyd gave back the binoculars and opened his disposable phone. “We need to search the house—to know for certain. But Marsha’s right. The risk’s too great without knowing if Blanchart’s home.”
“Then what are you getting at?” said Samantha.
“I’ll make a bogus 911 call and leave a tip about myself hiding out in a motel. If Blanchart’s inside, he’ll leave in a hurry.”
“And what if he doesn’t?” said Marsha. “What if he stays inside and sends a deputy to field the call?”
Samantha sided with Lloyd. “It’s worth a shot.”
“I still don’t like it,” said Marsha, regretting her decision to skip her flight and stay in Florida.
“Neither do I,” said Lloyd. “But right now it’s the only play we’ve got.”
Lloyd peered inside the etched windowpane embedded in the oak-stained four panel door. “I don’t see anyone,” he told Samantha, who searched the ground at the front of the house for the spare key concealed inside a faux rock.
Marsha’s voice came over the FRS walkie-talkie on Lloyd’s belt. “What’s happening?”
Lloyd unclipped the radio and pressed the transmit button. “We’re still looking for the key.”
“This is taking too long,” Marsha’s voice replied.
“Just keep your eyes open,” Lloyd spoke into the mike. “I don’t like surprises.”
He helped Samantha comb the ground along the hedge that framed the front yard landscaping. “I thought you knew where it was?”
Samantha dug her painted nails in the mulch bed. “Jamie must have moved it.” She brushed her hand on a lump in the soil and unearthed the man-made stone. “I found it!” she cried triumphantly as she opened the bottom compartment.
Lloyd watched a minivan wind through the gated subdivision. “What about the alarm?”
“Jamie showed me the code,” Samantha reassured him. She slid the key in the Baldwin cylinder. The lock turned freely, granting access to the furnished family room. Plastic sheets covered every piece of furniture but one. A broken grandfather clock stood prominently in the formal living room across from the gas fireplace. A faint ammonia smell hung in the air.
Samantha punched the four digit code in the security display to deactivate the silent alarm. The red LED turned green. “We’re good. I’ll check the bedrooms. You check the rest of the house.”
Lloyd started in the kitchen and checked the adjacent pool bath. He checked the empty nursery and the guest bathroom.
Samantha searched the master bedroom and found Jamie’s clothes in the closet. An open suitcase rested on the rumpled bed. She examined the empty bathroom and found a spotless sink with a dry hand-towel folded neatly through a brass ring holder by the mirror. “No one’s been here for awhile,” she hollered.
“I’ll check the study,” said Lloyd, who pounded his fist on the locked door. He jiggled the handle and pushed with his arm. Unsuccessful, he lowered his shoulder, bent his knees, and used his full body weight. This time his effort met with the loud crack of splintered wood.
Samantha followed Lloyd and stared at the vacant closet. “It’s empty…” she said, dismayed by the missing evidence that Jamie reassured her was there.
“He knows we’re on to him,” said Lloyd. “He’s trying to cover his tracks.”
“He killed her. I know he did.”
“We don’t know that. Just keep moving.”
“Did you look at the pool area?” Samantha asked.
“Nothing,” said Lloyd. “The other rooms are empty too. We should check the garage.”
Samantha followed Lloyd to find the red Volvo parked in its designated spot. “That’s her car.”
Lloyd put his hand on the hood. It felt cool to the touch.
He popped the trunk and found a stash of empty grocery bags behind a cargo net.
Samantha looked over his shoulder. “This house gives me the creeps.”
Lloyd eyed the ceiling and pulled down the folding ladder. He climbed inside the attic and tugged on the chain beneath the light socket to illuminate the space above the garage. Colored bins sat on sheets of plywood that spanned the rafters stuffed with rolls of pink insulation.
He unzipped a large canvas bag to dismiss the unthinkable and found a dismantled Christmas tree stuffed inside.
“Do you see anything?” Samantha called out from below.
Lloyd pulled the chain and climbed down. He folded the ladder onto itself and raised the spring-assisted platform to the ceiling. “Nothing.”
Samantha cupped her hand to her mouth. “He must have taken her somewhere.”
“I have no idea,” Samantha answered. “Jamie never travels. She never visits. She’s been a prisoner in this house since she married that bastard. He never lets her out of his sight.”