Lloyd rode the Triumph through heavy traffic, mindful of his speed and the dark blue Chevy Impala lingering several cars behind. He’d spotted the familiar vehicle two lights back, when the driver pulled a U-turn and tailed him on a meandering route through town. Now he recognized the tool behind the wheel, glancing back long enough to make sure Varden didn’t lose him in traffic.
Lloyd grabbed the clutch and downshifted with his left foot before he leaned the bike through another turn.
The blue Impala hung back and followed Lloyd through a tree-lined neighborhood with cookie cutter mailboxes and manicured lawns.
Lloyd slowed at the stop sign and checked his mirrors. He remembered the streets that ended with palm tree roundabouts designed to manage the flow of traffic between adjacent subdivisions governed by coercive Home Owner Associations. The nostalgic moment reminded him of a time when his father ran the HOA board for two years in a deed-restricted community before he lost his stomach to the bickering and draconian politics from elected members who made a career out of hassling their own neighbors over trivial covenant violations. The ignorant, highfalutin’ mongrels ruled with a Stalin fist, enforcing fines or legal action against homeowners who failed to sweep errant blades of cut grass from their driveways.
After the HOA fiasco, his new parents sold the house and moved the family from the planned community to a well water farmhouse on a two acre parcel, far away from the self prescribed dictators. A place where no one controlled how they lived their lives or what color they painted their shutters.
He turned right, accelerated to twenty-five miles an hour, and followed the street through a roundabout that continued to a four-way stop. This time he sat on purpose, idling, waiting patiently for Varden’s blue Impala to catch up and slow behind him.
The trap was set.
Lloyd drove straight ahead, guiding his bike through the narrow space between the shoulder and the island separation that blocked four wheel traffic from entering the adjoining neighborhood. Free to travel without a chaperone, he followed the residential street out to the main thoroughfare and continued toward his final destination.
* * *
Lloyd found a quiet spot near the back of the library, where a corner cubicle with a PC workstation provided Internet access. Thirty minutes before close, he placed the cursor on the search prompt and typed “Jules Verne.”
The screen returned several references to the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, written by Jules Verne. He clicked on a few hyperlinks and skimmed the text. Then he scrolled to a newspaper article for a Julian Verne obituary with the last name spelled the same as in his father’s note.
“Julian Arthur Verne, 73, of Lakewood, Florida, died Monday, December 3, 2003. Mr. Verne was born in Jacksonville, Florida, March 24, 1930. He is survived by a younger sister and an older brother, both from Rochester, New York. Mr. Verne’s wife of 40 years, Adrian Lynn Verne, preceded him in death. Funeral services will be conducted at 1 p.m. on Tuesday at the Seaside Funeral Home.”
Lloyd unfolded the crumpled note his father gave him and read the words from a new perspective.
I’m sorry for what has happened, but this was God’s plan not mine. I accept what you have done, and I forgive you. No man is perfect. Sometimes we succumb to our temptations despite our best intentions. I hope this letter finds you in good health and good conscience. I wish I could offer you more. If you need an escape from reality, dig up Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Forgive me for not expressing myself to you in person, but as you know, I have never been a man of words.
* * *
A hacking cough reverberated through the library, followed by the bark of a wooden chair leg on a tile floor. A wheelchair motor hummed in the background.
Lloyd sensed someone watching him, a quiet presence stalking him from the rows of dusty books facing spine out. He stood up and stretched, curling his fists toward his shoulders.
A subtle movement caught his eye as a figure spied him from across the room, hiding behind the literary masters bound in paper and ink.
Lloyd strolled toward the emergency exit near the end of the aisle by the water fountain and a window looking out at the side of the parking lot. He recognized the car discretely parked behind a Salvation Army trailer on blocks. The cat and mouse routine had continued long enough. The time to confront his fear was now.
He roamed the aisles one by one, working his way toward the nonfiction section by the wall, where he found his quarry hiding in the farthest corner of the empty room.
“What are you doing here?” he whispered.
Jamie trembled in her yellow sundress. “Just looking,” she said, her shallow voice oscillating with every nervous fiber in her body.
Lloyd moved toward her.
Jamie stepped onto a librarian stool and rose above the floor. She gazed down at Lloyd, her breasts even with his chin. She touched her hands to his shoulders, broad and deep—and strong as case-hardened steel. She lost herself in his eyes, enraptured by the energy that radiated from his aura.
Lloyd slid his hands along her slender legs. He lifted the bottom of her dress inch by inch, restraining his burning desire while his warm fingers met the back of her sculpted thighs.
Jamie blushed in her vulnerable position. She pressed Lloyd’s hands through her cotton dress in a token effort to impede his advance. Her heart raced. Wetness streamed to her delicate region, priming her body to accommodate his thickness. “Don’t…” she moaned in protest, her ability to think and reason diluted in her own pool of lust.
Lloyd maintained delicate pressure on Jamie’s soft skin, his thumbs caressing her inner thigh, his warm breath and tender lips kissing the front of her belly as he slid her panties to her ankles and brought his smile inside her dress.
Jamie balanced herself with one hand on the bookshelf, her other hand cupping the back of Lloyd’s head. Her rational mind felt indecent and exposed, terrified by the thought of someone watching—and the consequences of her tryst. But involuntary actions prevailed, governed by a chemical reaction that promoted an overwhelming desire to experience a physical connection with the stranger she’d fantasized about. Now the moment was hers to indulge, if only for an instant outside the confines of her miserable married life.
She ached for the fantasy she felt compelled to live without, her mood rigid but unguarded, teetering on the verge of insanity from the delicate pressure of Lloyd’s tongue. “Don’t stop,” she groaned, yearning for the moment to last forever.
Lloyd continued his advance, employing slow, deliberate motions on her delicate flesh until he felt her quivering orgasm come to pass. He stood up and loosened his belt buckle to relieve the pressure in his pants. His heart pounded with anticipation.
Jamie stepped down from the stool and discovered the intensity of Lloyd’s physical prowess. She glanced down the aisle of books before she swallowed the head of Lloyd’s perfectly sculpted penis, warm and smooth inside her mouth.
Lloyd savored the sensations in his loins from the amateur, yet proficient ability of the woman who devoured him. When the tingling sensations became unbearable, he tightened his fists and fought the urge to spill himself too soon.
His knees weakened until his willpower collapsed from the strain of agonizing pleasure. Unable to hold out any longer, he gently, but firmly, pulled Jamie’s head away and negotiated her backside toward him with her legs spread apart.
Breathless with anticipation, he pressed his warm tip at her entrance, intensifying his desire for a physical connection that transcended a casual encounter and embraced an animal instinct.
He entered her slowly from behind, his fingertips caressing her nipples through the front of her dress while he guided himself in and out, slowly at first, then more assertively.
He moved with graceful thrusts, deep and shallow and deep again. He held her hips in his powerful hands and directed her movements the way a skilled equestrian controlled a spirited ride, pulling her tightness against him before he glimpsed the point of no return, unable to sustain his resistance any longer. He felt her come a second time, his body melting with pleasure as he rocked his hips to glide smoothly within her, pulsing with long, rhythmic strokes until his entire body shuddered in a mind-bending climax.
Leslie drove west outside Orlando until she reached the outskirts of a small town she knew by heart; a town she grew up in with two younger brothers and an older sister in her family’s two bedroom condo overlooking a lake with more alligators than fish; a town Deputy Carter’s widow called home.
“My name is Leslie Dancroft.” She introduced herself outside Theresa Carter’s screen-door. “We spoke on the phone this morning.” She held up her government ID card.
Theresa Carter cradled her newborn in her arm, cupping the baby’s head in her hand to adjust the hungry mouth over the nipple poking through her maternity bra. She glanced at the laminated identification card and the dirty Lexus in her driveway.
“Is this a bad time?” asked Leslie.
“It’s as good a time as any,” Theresa offered. She invited Leslie to the living room and sat on a faded love seat with a pillow under her arm and a burp cloth over her shoulder. “Will this bother you?”
“Not at all,” said Leslie, somewhat squeamish about the infant’s aggressive sucking posture on her mother’s breast.
“Some people get offended,” Theresa said in a solemn voice.
“What’s your baby’s name?”
“Amelia. We named her after my great grandmother.”
“How often does she feed?”
“About every couple hours.”
“Does it hurt?”
“You adapt to it. I take it you don’t have children?”
“Not yet.” Leslie folded the page in her legal pad. Doped up on cough syrup and nasal decongestants, she fought to keep her concentration. “Thank you for your time Mrs. Carter. I’ll keep this brief.”
Theresa adjusted the baby’s posture to facilitate the flow of milk. “You said you wanted to ask me about Simon. About the insurance money?”
“Indirectly, so to speak. I’m an attorney—”
“What kind of attorney?”
“I work with the public defender’s office.”
“Are you telling me you represent the bastard who shot my Simon?”
“I work for the county. I’m trying to learn the truth about what happened.”
“What does this have to do with insurance money?”
“The person responsible for your husband’s murder—”
“The person who killed my husband is in custody. Unless you came to bring me a check, I want you to leave.”
Leslie forced a smile. “Mrs. Carter, the man the police arrested might be guilty of other crimes, but murder isn’t one of them. That means your husband’s killer is still at large, jeopardizing the lives of other innocent people—of other law enforcement officers. Your husband wouldn’t want that. Would you?”
Theresa eased the baby girl from her breast and hugged her against the burp cloth on her shoulder. She patted her daughter’s back with a gentle hand. “How do you know this man didn’t kill Simon?”
“I can’t disclose the details. You have to trust me. For the sake of argument, even if I am wrong, and I strongly believe I’m not, your husband’s benefits will be paid to you, in full, regardless of who the jury convicts. I want to see justice served as much as you do, but convicting an innocent man won’t bring your husband back.”
Theresa waited for the baby’s burp before she continued feeding. “What do you want to know?”
Leslie reached inside her purse and activated her digital voice recorder. “Anything you can tell me about Simon, specifically about the night he died.”
“I can’t remember much, except he never came home. I got a phone call that he was hurt. Dead is dead. No need to sugarcoat the words.”
Leslie turned her head and coughed away from Theresa and the baby. Her throat felt achy, scratchy, like she swallowed broken glass. “I’m sorry. I know this is difficult. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
The baby gave a loud burp, followed by a stream of creamy white spit-up.
Theresa wiped the baby’s mouth and propped her face on the burp cloth draped over her shoulder. “I call her my little piglet. All she does is eat and poop. And sleep, sometimes.” She stuffed a pillow at the small of her back. “Simon used to teach middle school algebra. He burned out after a couple years and wanted a career change. I begged him not to go into law enforcement. I told him I didn’t care what he did for a living as long as it didn’t involve people shooting at him. The school kids missed him. They were hard on him at times, but they loved him. Teaching was in his heart, not playing cops and robbers.”
“Did he have friends in the sheriff’s department?”
“A few. He took me to the policemen’s dance last year. I was pregnant at the time and didn’t feel much like dancing.”
“Was there anyone in particular that he liked to socialize with after work? A partner maybe, or a mentor?”
Theresa thought for a moment. “He rode solo like everyone else in the department. His rookie year he rode with the sheriff from time to time. Said it was part of his training plan.”
“Sheriff Blanchart?” Leslie asked to confirm her notes.
“Did you ever meet him?”
“Only the one time, at a charity event. Simon introduced me to him. I could tell Simon liked him by the way he spoke about him. Simon was proud to work for Sheriff Blanchart. He said Blanchart taught him everything the academy didn’t. Simon reached out to him like a big brother. Only white. No offense.”
“None taken. How well did you know Sheriff Blanchart?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was he friendly outside of work?”
“He seemed like any other boss, I guess. I know he liked Simon. I can’t speak to what he thought about me.”
“Did your husband ever complain about Sheriff Blanchart?”
“If he did, he didn’t do it in front of me. Simon loved his job, except for the overnight hours. He felt bad about leaving me with the baby at night. I told him it didn’t matter. He wasn’t equipped to feed her anyway.” Theresa forced a smile. “I miss him so much.” She propped the baby on her shoulder to start the burping process again. The infant squirmed in her hands, crying in fits and starts.
“I’m sorry,” Leslie offered. “I know this is hard for you.”
Theresa wiped away a tear. “The last day I saw my husband he left the same time he always did. I packed a supper for him and kissed him good-bye. He seemed distant, quiet, like he had a lot on his mind. The night shift did that to him. He never really took to sleeping in the daytime. That’s all I can think of.”
“I appreciate your time, Mrs. Carter, especially under the circumstances. You’ve been a big help.”
Theresa stood up and bounced gently with her baby. “It smells like we need a diaper change.”
“May I use your restroom?” Leslie asked.
“It’s down the hallway on the left.”
Leslie gathered her notes in her attaché case. She reached the end of the hall and turned on the bathroom light. Instead of entering the bathroom, she closed the door from the outside and slipped into the adjacent office while Theresa brought her baby to the nursery.
Leslie started with the desk, searching the lateral file drawers for anything that might offer new direction. She found lesson plans, student evaluation forms, and several empty folders leftover from Carter’s teaching career but nothing tangible to help her case.
She searched the crumpled printer pages in the trash can. She found a menu for a Chinese restaurant, directions for a breast pump machine, a home equity loan application, and several newspaper articles on methamphetamine abuse detailing the rise of drug labs in suburban neighborhoods. She stuffed the articles in her pocket and powered on the computer to search Deputy Carter’s email.
She scrolled through the “Sent” folder and checked the “Deleted Items” box, skimming the email titles arranged by date. When a title caught her eye, she opened the message and read: I talked to Blanchart. He suspects there’s a snake in the house. Need to be careful. Can you meet tomorrow?”
She read the email date and noted the recipient’s email address—firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Can I help you?” Theresa asked from outside the study.
Leslie jumped. “I was just searching for directions. The computer was on so I—”
“No it wasn’t. I never gave you permission to go in there.”
“I’m only trying to help your husband.”
“My husband is dead, Ms. Dancroft. Ain’t nobody helping him right now but God.”
“Was your husband in trouble?”
“I would like you to leave now.”
Leslie moved away from the study. “Your husband died under suspicious circumstances. I’m only trying to find the truth about what happened.”
“Then search somewhere else. If I find you on my property again, I’ll introduce you to the sheriff myself.”