A Dangerous Affair: Chapters 36-37

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.

Lloyd,

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.

Love, Robert.

* * *

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.

Chapter 37

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.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“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.

“Yes.”

“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—xyzpdq22@aol.com.

“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.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapters 30-31

Leslie Dancroft reviewed her notes beside a box of Kleenex and a large accordion file folder on the steel table inside the muted interview room. Her somber mood exacerbated by the gray concrete walls and dim lighting, she faced the ambiguity of an observation mirror and her own diluted sense of justice as she waited for Morallen’s arrival. What she knew to be true, she could live with. What she didn’t know kept her up at night, toiling over the case she refused to relinquish despite George’s instructions to the contrary.

She found no hard evidence to support Manny Morallen’s version of events leading up to Deputy Carter’s murder. Without something tangible to balance the scales, her defense was dead in the water. Morallen, a career criminal who’d pimp his own grandmother to keep himself out of jail, gave a statement that held no weight in court. And despite his caustic demeanor and self-proclaimed loathing of men in uniform, Morallen appeared to have the one thing the majority of her client’s lacked—a conscience. Nonetheless, eighteen years of courtroom experience convinced her that Morallen’s jury would conclude their deliberations in the time it took to order lunch. The verdict—guilty as charged with a minimum sentence of life without parole and a push from the state attorney for the death penalty.

She read Blanchart’s report over and over, searching for a discrepancy she could parlay into reasonable doubt. Compelled to follow the truth wherever it led her, she refused to give up, prepared to dig in and fight before she pinned her client’s fate on a miracle.

More than twenty minutes late, Morallen finally arrived in his orange jumpsuit and restraints. His pork chop sideburns grew ragged on his face, replete with a black eye and substantial facial bruising.

“You’re late.” Leslie spoke through a stuffy nose. “We don’t have a lot of time.” She signaled for the armed escort to leave the room before she introduced her digital voice recorder.

“What are you doing here?” Morallen grumbled.

“What happened to your face?”

“I fell down the stairs.”

“In a single story jail?”

“It happens.”

“I’ll talk to someone—”

“Don’t,” Morallen insisted. “I can handle my own in here.”

“Who did this to you?”

Morallen turned away from the mirror. “What do you want?”

“I need to ask you some more questions about your statement.”

Morallen put his handcuffed hands on the table. “It’s your dime.”

“How did you come to know Leeland Marks?”

“What’s it matter?”

“How did you get involved with him?”

Morallen rubbed his chin. “We did time together. He offered me a job when I got back to the world. I took it.”

Leslie retrieved the crime scene photos from a folder and spread them on the table. “What do you see in these pictures?”

“This some kind of trick question?” Morallen asked. He stifled a yawn, and she realized his jaw hurt too much to let it out.

“Look at the photos,” Leslie prompted him.

Morallen gave a cursory glance. “That’s Hugo and the dead cop.”

“How can you be certain about the cop with half his face shot off?”

“Because only two cops were there. And the other one’s still breathing.”

“Do you recognize the shotgun in the photo?”

Morallen shrugged.

“Yes or no.”

“It looks like Hugo’s gun.”

Leslie moved the first set of photos to make room on the table. “Is it possible that Hugo shot Deputy Carter before he shot himself?”

Morallen leaned across the table. He whispered in an angry tone. “Lady, how many times can I tell you? Hugo didn’t kill no one but himself.”

Leslie sneezed into a tissue. She blew her puffy nose and showed a photo of Vince Parr in the morgue. “Do you recognize this man?”

“What are you? Some kind of detective?”

Leslie persisted. “Do you recognize him or not?”

“Yeah. I seen him before. His name’s Parr. What’s he got to do with me?”

“The sheriff’s department found him dead on the side of the road three days ago. Victim of a hit and run. Turns out his prints were also found in the house on Lipscomb Street.”

“So?”

“Maybe Vince Parr was in the house with you when Carter was killed. Maybe he saw something he shouldn’t have. And maybe you had him killed to keep him quiet.”

“From inside this joint?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time someone ordered a hit from behind bars.”

“Lady I’m just a cook. I ain’t got that kind of juice.”

“Then who does?”

“How the fuck should I know?” said Morallen. “I only met Parr a couple times. The dude was messed up. That’s all I can tell you.”

Leslie cleared her throat again. She yearned for the bottled water the officer confiscated before she passed through the metal detectors. “What was your connection to Parr?”

“Parr delivered the materials. Hugo and me cooked the shit.”

“And the three of you worked for Leeland Marks?”

“Something like that.”

“Was Leeland Marks in the house when Carter was killed?”

Morallen glanced at the camera in the ceiling. “Marks never got his hands dirty. He was all about the business end. Like a silent partner. He was the money man. Never touched the product himself. Had a niece who overdosed on meth and croaked. Said he’d never sell to kids again.”

“Real humanitarian,” Leslie mumbled to herself.

“Human what?”

Leslie rolled her eyes and jotted notes on her legal pad. “Never mind.”

Morallen lowered his voice. “You think we could pin this murder rap on Marks?”

“I think it’s something we could sell the jury.” Leslie gathered the crime scene photos. Given Morallen’s criminal background, she had reason to doubt him, yet she trusted his statements. Why exactly, she couldn’t say at the moment, but her instincts told her Morallen had something to hide. They also told her he stopped short at murder.

She pulled a copy of the state’s lab report. “One more thing… When you were arrested, the sheriff’s office tested your hands for the presence of gunshot residue. The good news is, the results came back negative. The bad news is that the sheriff’s office didn’t test you until they found you two days after Carter was shot. The prosecution will argue that you had ample time to wash the evidence away before you were taken into custody.” She blew her nose and reviewed the highlighted text at the bottom of the page. “The lab also found traces of GSR on your shirt.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you either fired a weapon, or you were standing next to someone who did.”

“I told you I was hiding in the attic when the shit went down.”

“Then how do you explain the gun powder residue on your shirt?”

“I can’t. I didn’t shoot no one.” Morallen pointed to the accordion file holder. “You got my mug shot in there?”

Leslie searched the alphabetized holder and laid the black and white photo on the table.

“That’s not my shirt,” Morallen proclaimed. “I mean that’s the shirt I was wearing when they busted me, but that’s not the shirt I had on at the house.”

“Are you sure?”

“I tossed it in a dumpster so the dogs couldn’t track me.”

“Did you ever fire a gun while you were wearing that shirt?”

“No.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes. Does this mean my case gets tossed out?”

“Not exactly. But it’s a win for us.”

Leslie gathered Morallen’s photo in her folder. She had experience with dirty clients. Dirty cops were another animal altogether. If Blanchart was somehow involved in Carter’s murder, she needed more than a convicted felon’s testimony and a pile of circumstantial evidence.

“So now what?” Morallen asked.

“Sit tight a little longer. Someone posted your bail this morning.”

Chapter 31

Lloyd splashed cold water on his face in the restroom at Sonny’s. He wiped a paper towel on his sunburned skin, grateful for the paycheck and supremely hungry for food that didn’t come in a plastic carton. Burdened by the circumstances of his father’s death, he yearned for an explanation from the man who lay buried beneath the earth. But that conversation would have to wait. He had his whole life ahead of him with no intention of an early exit.

Where his father failed to teach him about the ways of the world, prison filled in the gaps. From the second he stepped out of the transport bus, he discovered how life behind bars preached its own set of unspoken rules and consequences. Rapes, murders, and perpetual threats defined the norm in a closed society governed by those in power—and feared by those who lacked the courage to stand tall and face their troubles, real or imagined.

Some problems he left behind; others he carried with him for the long haul, unable to shake the guilty conscience that metastasized from his core beliefs and hindered his ability to carve a better life for himself. A life with dignity and purpose. A life without remorse for the savage acts of self-defense that shielded him from larger predators who broke the spirit of frightened inmates and turned weaker men into slaves. What happens in here today, defines who you are tomorrow, his cell-mate would preach. A man with nothing to lose has nothing to fear. A man with nothing to fear commands respect.

Outside the restroom, Lloyd pulled his time card from the rack on the wall near Sonny’s office and poked his head in the customer waiting room to find the last person he expected to see.

Jamie poured coffee in a paper cup. Startled by the loud cha-chink from the time card machine, she bumped the coffee pot on the counter and splashed the back of her hand.

Lloyd grabbed a stack of napkins by the counter. “Did it get you?”

“I’m fine,” said Jamie. Her hand throbbed from the scalding burn, but the initial pain wore off quickly, courtesy of the mild sedative in her system.

Lloyd offered the napkins. “You should run that under cold water.”

“It’s fine.”

Lloyd fed a dollar in the drink machine and pressed the button for a twenty-ounce Dasani. He gave the cold bottle to Jamie. “Hold this on your hand. It will take the sting away.”

“You keep it,” said Jamie, noting Lloyd’s sweat-soaked shirt. “You look like you need it more than I do.”

Lloyd sniffed the air. Immune to his own fragrance after working in the sun all day, he felt nervous and euphoric at the same time, as if he jumped from an airplane naked. “I’m Lloyd,” he said, his smile beaming at Jamie. “You’ve been here twice this week, and I still don’t know your name.”

“Do you know all your customers by name?”

“Only the ones that matter.”

Jamie blushed. “You’re the only car wash in town.”

“That’s what I hear,” said Lloyd. He wiped the spilled coffee from the counter.

Jamie looked away. “How long have you worked here?”

“A couple weeks,” said Lloyd. “How long have you been married?”

“That’s kind of personal, don’t you think?”

“Not really,” said Lloyd.

Jamie twisted her wedding band on her finger. “Twelve years.”

“Do you love him?”

“Of course I love him. Why would I marry someone I don’t love?” She stared at Lloyd’s forearm and the cross tattoo sketched in black ink. “Where did you get that?”

“That’s kind of personal,” said Lloyd, his radiant smile slowly melting the wall of ice in front of him. “Don’t you think?”

“Not really,” said Jamie, in lock-step with Lloyd’s overt attempt at mockery.

Lloyd racked his imagination to think of something funny to say, anything to coax a reaction from the woman who held his undivided attention. “I got it in prison,” he confessed.

“What did you do?”

“I broke the law.”

* * *

Jamie sipped her coffee. Light cream. No sugar. She felt threatened and secure all at once. She’d done what her husband asked her to do and washed the car. A task she completed with no repercussions to fear, aside from a tinge of guilt for conversing with a man who spent time behind bars. A man with penetrating eyes and a stimulating aura about him. “I should check on my car,” she said in an effort to disengage the conversation.

“Do you use the library?” asked Lloyd.

“Excuse me?”

“I go there to read. Thursday nights, usually. It’s quiet. And private.”

Jamie blushed. She toyed with her necklace, light-headed and anxious to abandon the awkward conversation.

“Your car’s ready, Mrs. Blanchart,” Sonny announced outside the waiting room.

Jamie dropped her cup in the trash and excused herself.

“You better be clocked out,” Sonny harped at Lloyd. “Your shift ended ten minutes ago.”

Lloyd pulled his time card from the rack and held it for Sonny to read. He waved the bottled water. “Just came to get a drink.”

“Where’s your brother? I haven’t seen him in days.”

“He’s sick.”

“He better be on life support. No work, no pay. Comprender?”

“I’ll tell him.”

Sonny took the time card from Lloyd. “I have your brother on the schedule every day next week. If I catch him playing hookey, you’ll both be looking for another job.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapters 25-26

Varden sat on a terra cotta leather sofa with his hands cupped tightly together and his back ramrod straight. Water trickled from a tabletop fountain inside the contemporary office decorated with faux painted walls of varied hues blended to match the modern décor and the teak-framed medical school diploma.

“I’m not sure what to say,” Varden acknowledged to Doctor Lacy, the young female psychiatrist he found attractive enough to tolerate for more than five minutes at a time. Reluctant to open up about his life, he felt compelled to say something to fill the silence. But his personal life was personal. And any facet of his past that he chose to share, he would do so with discretion.

“Why don’t you start by making yourself more comfortable,” Doctor Lacy suggested. She parted a lock of straight hair from her light brown complexion and flashed a cheery, cover-girl smile. A notepad rested on her knee-length skirt that covered the top of her slender legs. “Relax, Mr. Varden. This isn’t a dental visit. No shots or drills, I promise.”

“You’re not what I expected,” said Varden. He parted his hands and leaned against the sofa’s rolled panel arm. His fingers tapped at the brass nail heads.

“And what were you expecting?”

Varden avoided prolonged eye contact, unwilling to glimpse the enemy for more than a second at a time. “Someone older. More mature.”

“Define ‘more mature.'”

“An old lady with a double chin and glasses.”

Doctor Lacy wrote notes in shorthand.

“What are you writing?” Varden asked bluntly.

“Notes about our conversation. Does it make you uncomfortable?”

“A little.”

“Mr. Varden, there are no right or wrong answers in these sessions. Anything you share with me is kept confidential.” Doctor Lacy lifted her notepad from her lap and crossed one knee above the other. “Are you still taking the new antiviral medication I prescribed?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“I’m a medical doctor, Mr. Varden. I take a heuristic approach to my work. The more I understand about your physical as well as your psychiatric health, the better equipped I am to help you.”

Varden stood up to leave. “I need to get back to the house.”

“No one’s forcing you to be here, Mr. Varden. My office will invoice your health care provider whether you decide to stay or not. The decision is up to you.”

Varden returned to the sofa. He wanted to bolt for the door, but he couldn’t. Not yet. Not without some semblance of closure. “It breaks down like this,” he started with his confidence on the rise. “There are some aspects of my life I feel more comfortable discussing than others.”

“That’s a perfectly normal reaction. I think you will find over time this process does get easier for you.”

“There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to cure me,” said Varden.

Doctor Lacy shook her head slowly. “True, from a physiological perspective. But that doesn’t mean you stop fighting. It’s important that you take the antiviral meds. Every day. If the side affects are too pronounced, I can adjust the dosage for you.”

“I’m good.”

Doctor Lacy made a note. “Tell me more about your work. How is that affecting you?”

“You’re the shrink. Aren’t you supposed to tell me?”

“Do you leave the job at work or do you take it home with you?”

“I run a halfway house,” said Varden. “I baby-sit ex-convicts living under the same roof. Work and home are one and the same for me.”

“That must be stressful.”

“I take the good with the bad.”

“Do you resent them for what happened?”

Varden clenched his fists. He turned his attention to the window beside the desk and stared at the clouds. “Wouldn’t you?”

“These men under your supervision are not the same men who hurt you.”

“I never said they were.”

“Yet you still hold them accountable.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

Doctor Lacy met Varden’s gaze without blinking. “Why did you choose this line of work?”

“It’s what I know. And it pays the bills.”

“Any job can pay the bills. The question is why do you insert yourself in such an openly stressful environment?”

Varden turned the tables. “Why do you do what you do?”

“I like my work.”

“So do I,” said Varden. “You’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Doctor Lacy tapped the two-hundred dollar pen on her knee. “Let’s talk about your life outside of work. What keeps you busy in your free time?”

Varden rubbed his hands together. “My schedule doesn’t come with much free time. Sometimes I catch a movie or a quick pick-up game on the court. I read a book now and then. Sometimes I catch a game on TV.”

“Do you ever associate with ex-convicts outside of work?”

“Never.”

Doctor Lacy scribbled in her notepad. “How long have you been divorced?”

“How is that relevant to anything?”

“Six degrees of separation, Mr. Varden. Everything we experience in life is relevant to something else in one way or another.”

“Twelve years,” said Varden. He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

“Around the time your daughter disappeared?”

Varden stood up. “We’re done here.”

“I thought you were stronger than that.”

“Don’t play me, Doc. You think you know me? My life? You don’t know anything about me or my family.”

“That’s what I’m trying to understand.”

“Then understand this: I’m not here to be your puppet or your first private practice experiment. I did my homework too. You’re barely four years out of school and eighteen months beyond a funny farm residency.”

“You think I’m inexperienced?”

“I think you pretend to be something you’re not.”

“Is that what really bothers you,” Doctor Lacy pushed back, “or is there something more pressing you need to talk about?”

Varden put his hands on her desk to exert a position of power. “Don’t twist this around.”

Doctor Lacy dropped her notepad on the desk and stood up. “I’m not judging you, Mr. Varden. I’m trying to help you. If that concept is too difficult for you to grasp, I invite you to leave and go find another shoulder to cry on.”

Chapter 26

Josh turned the sofa cushions upside down, relentless in his quest to find a single cigarette and put an end to his incessant craving.

He dug between the cushions and found a used Band-Aid, a popsicle stick, and an empty stamp book.

He groped his hands in the cracks along the frame to find pennies, gum wrappers, lint, and a moldy pacifier—but not a crumb of tobacco from the hundreds of packs he’d opened on the sofa in the last several months.

He searched the space behind the stove and the back of the kitchen cabinets while Sheila’s baby cried in the adjacent room, frustrated by hunger pains and a soiled diaper.

He checked the junk drawer in the kitchen, the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, his gym bag and anywhere else a stray cigarette might hide; even one he smoked but didn’t finish; one that broke in half and went unnoticed.

He weighed his desperation against the consequence of a run to the store, knowing Sheila would prune his balls if she came home early and found her baby left alone.

He pawed through the trash can for his ash tray litter and the empty pack he’d tossed earlier. He cursed himself for not buying a second carton when he had the chance. His throat ached. His chest felt tight. The shakes came back with a vengeance.

Against the advice of his sponsor, he’d traded one addiction for another to help him balance the highs and lows that came with prolonged withdrawal. For the most part it worked. The good days were good. The bad days were tolerable. But lately the girlfriend, much like his nicotine craving, became increasingly difficult to manage. She failed to understand the burden her kid put on their relationship. There were too many baby chores to keep track of and too many nights without sleep. As time wore on, his patience wore out. He felt more like a prisoner in his own home, forced to suffer while he waited for Sheila to return from class.

He downed a cold beer from the fridge, but the alcohol had no affect on his thirst for lung candy. He needed a cigarette.

He grabbed his wallet and keys, prepared to make a run to the store before Sheila got home. Down and back in under five, he convinced himself.

Sack up and be a man for once in your life.

Sheila would never know. He would tell her he found the extra pack in a drawer. Logan would be in his crib where she’d left him. Life would go on without a hitch. Problem solved.

Josh paced by the worn sofa. Warm air basted the room from the broken air conditioner, causing him to sweat profusely. The baby’s incessant crying heaped more frustration on an already intolerable situation.

Josh had made big mistakes in early years and refused to commit another one by leaving Logan unattended, even for five minutes. Josh knew the baby cried for a reason and would continue to cry until someone changed his diaper and plugged a bottle in his mouth.

Josh marched to Logan’s crib and gave a loud shah! to the three-month-old flush with tears. “Stop crying!”

The frightened baby cried louder.

Josh left the room and stormed out of the trailer. He searched his car for a cigarette and came up empty. He put his hands on the car keys in his pocket with the gumption to drive away. But he couldn’t. Not in light of the vow he’d made to himself to turn his life around by making smart decisions. And leaving Logan alone, even for a few minutes, wasn’t one of them.

He kicked the car and slammed his hand on the roof. He could hear the high-pitch wailing from outside the trailer before he went back inside.

“I got you,” he said as he approached the crib. He carried the crying infant to the changing table and unbuttoned the one-piece suit at the bottom. He inhaled through his mouth to avoid the stink from the loaded diaper.

Butt naked from the waist down, Logan kicked and screamed in defiance of the hunger pains that ruled his world.

Josh pressed his arm across Logan’s tiny chest to keep him from rolling over. He tossed the soiled diaper in the trash and plucked a handful of aloe wipes from the shelf underneath the changing table. “Hold still!”

He wiped the baby’s bottom and secured a fresh diaper between the squirming legs. Then he draped a burp cloth over his shoulder and brought the boy against his chest.

In the kitchen, he warmed a bottle in the microwave and tested the formula on his wrist.

Way too hot.

He added tap water to cool the mix, coddling the hysterical infant with his free arm.

You should have bailed when you had the chance. You could be on your second cigarette by now. You brought this on yourself. Took on more than you could handle.

The baby smelled the milk—and the raw emotion coming from the stranger in his presence.

Josh shoved the bottle at Logan’s tiny mouth, nudging the nipple back and forth along the pink gum line. Formula seeped from the pin prick opening and dripped on Logan’s face and neck.

Josh rocked the baby in his arm. The boy wasn’t his responsibility, it was Sheila’s. Her baby, her problem. Logan would drink from a bottle, but only if Sheila fed him, and even then, he usually threw up more than he swallowed.

Josh set the bottle on the kitchen counter and bounced the baby on his knee. He needed one cigarette. One precious cancer stick, regular or light, menthol or not, filtered or unfiltered. He could take the baby with him, kicking and screaming to the mini-mart, but Sheila had the car seat in her Mustang.

Josh shook the bottle of baby formula and tested the temperature on his wrist. Not too hot. Not too cold.

He jabbed the nipple up and down inside the baby’s mouth to entice the boy to eat.

He’d agreed to baby-sit Sheila’s kid, not put up with dirty diapers and the endless crying.

He bounced the fragile infant harder and harder, slapping Logan gently on the back to vent a simmering temper.

When Logan refused the bottle again, Josh hurled it at the sink. A fit of rage unfolded in slow motion. Any concept of right or wrong faded quickly with his loss of self control, his conscience disengaged from the veracity of his actions.

“Shut up!” Josh yelled at the screaming infant, shaking the baby harder and harder until the crying finally stopped.

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 20-21

Jamie locked the bathroom door and slid herself inside the oval soaking tub, filled with scented, turquoise water. She leaned back against the bath pillow and faced the steam-glazed mirror that caught the glow from a cranberry candle. The thrum of steady rain against the bathroom skylight quelled the sound of distant traffic.

She let her thoughts drift on autopilot, reflecting on the simple life she’d enjoyed in her twenties. A time devoid of Alan Blanchart, uncluttered by a wife’s responsibilities and life’s unpredictable nature; a time with no one to care for but herself, when the world revolved around her own pleasures.

Unaccustomed to romance, she’d gained more experience from books than from personal knowledge. She shared her life with Alan Blanchart, and her commitment to uphold the vows of matrimony through the good times and the bad. Yet despite her promise, she couldn’t deny the rekindled sense of longing she’d felt in the presence of the handsome car wash attendant who stirred a dormant passion inside her.

She slid a wet washcloth from her shoulder to her naked chest, rubbing her flat abdomen in small circles to massage the area below her navel and north of her waxed pubic region.

She spread her legs in the moisturized effervescence, reliving the moment when she brushed against the rugged stranger and felt an instant, almost indescribable connection.

She closed her eyes and imagined a forbidden kiss. Her fingers traced along her erogenous zone, provoking sensations she hadn’t enjoyed for most of her married life. She moaned softly, her inhibitions subsiding in the sanctuary of her warm bath. Stimulated by a feather touch, she awakened a sensual craving induced by a guilty pleasure—abruptly ended by an incoming call.

She dried her hands on a bath towel and reached for her cell phone on the toilet lid. “Hi there,” she greeted Alan, his name prominently displayed on the caller ID.

“You sound out of breath,” Blanchart said through the speakerphone in his cruiser.

“I’m taking a bath. Are you coming home?”

“Not yet. Did you see the dermatologist?”

“I did. I’m on the schedule for next week.”

Blanchart typed a Web address on the laptop keyboard in his cruiser. “Did you get the car washed?”

Jamie thought about her answer. “I did, but it rained. I’ll have to go back again.”

“Did you get the mail?”

“It’s on the table.”

“Any packages?”

“Not today. A few bills came. I recycled the junk mail.”

“What else?”

“Samantha called again. She keeps asking to come down for my birthday.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I told her I’d have to talk to you.”

A long silence came over the phone. Jamie heard a voice in the background. “Are you still there?” she asked.

Blanchart spoke in a monotone voice, preoccupied with the Website content. “Samantha’s important to you, so she’s important to me. If she wants to come see you, let her come. Don’t let me stand in the way.”

“Really?” Jamie said incredulously.

“You’re my wife. It’s your birthday.”

“Thank you,” said Jamie. “It means a lot to me.” She pressed the phone against her ear to compensate for the weak signal. “You still there?”

“I have to go,” said Blanchart, tersely. “Make sure you set the alarm.”

“I will.”

“And don’t forget to blow the candle out. Those things will burn the house down.”

Jamie covered her breasts with the washcloth and slid beneath the waterline. She stared at the ceiling and felt her bath grow cold.

Chapter 21

Leeland Marks drank Crystal at two in the morning, from a champagne flute in the back of a stretched Hummer limousine. Gold cuff links sparkled on the sleeves of his black Armani blazer. Grey whisker stubble outlined a budding goatee and mustache, adding chic with a pinch of sinister to the man who ruled a mounting empire.

An entrepreneur with the right connections to the right people at the right time, he built a thriving drug business from the ground up. Everything from manufacturing to distribution and sales came under his purview. Expenses were down with revenues at triple digits and rising steadily from increased demand for his methamphetamine product. Drawing from raw talent and years of MBA experience, he acquired new properties and expanded his market base from a single West Coast operation to a network of high-volume kitchens established in low-rent, high-yield locations across the country.

In less than three years, he emerged from the rubble of a Wall Street layoff to achieve unprecedented success. In three days, he’d negotiate the deal of the century and secure his position of power as the self-proclaimed CEO of a legitimate holding company laundering millions through private investment accounts.

“Don’t be such a downer,” he told the three-hundred-pound gorilla seated across from him. Leeland filled a second glass and pushed it toward the heavy-set bodyguard with a bald head, a diamond stud earring, and a canvas of tribal tattoos circumnavigating his bulging biceps.

“I don’t drink,” the bodyguard said in a grave voice. He carried a pair of Smith & Wesson SW99s in a leather shoulder rig decked out with magazines of hollow-point .45s.

Leeland downed the second glass himself. “For five grand a week you should squawk like a fucking chicken if I tell you to. My success is our success. I wouldn’t be here without your help.” He powered down the tinted window and tossed the empty bottle on the street. Then he pressed the chauffer intercom and said, “Turn at the flashing light.”

The Hummer scrubbed speed and hung a right at the three-way yellow, its massive tires crunching shrubs and fallen branches along the soggy road pummeled by an isolated thunderstorm. At the opposite end, the road opened to a pitch black clearing where an empty aircraft hangar sat near a private runway barely visible at night.

The bodyguard cocked his head back and forth. Tendons cracked and popped inside his massive neck. “They’re late.”

“They’ll be here,” said Leeland.

The bodyguard checked his watch. “It’s too quiet.”

“We’re on private property in the middle of jumbuck nowhere. It’s supposed to be quiet.”

The Hummer parked inside the hangar and the lights were killed.

Leeland dialed his cell phone and reached his wife’s voicemail. “Hey, baby,” he said. “Our flight’s delayed. Give the kids a hug for me. I’ll see you when I’m back.” He popped the cork on another bottle of Crystal. Foam drizzled down the glass and onto his lap. He turned to his minion. “Get me a towel.”

The bodyguard tossed a hand cloth at his boss and opened the door to get out. “I need a smoke.”

Leeland dabbed the cloth on his lap. “Don’t go far.” He poured his glass and set the bottle in the chiller. The party was over, but the night was young. A victim of his own temptation, he maintained a separate life on the road, fed by his desire for constant female attention and the lavish accoutrements his empire afforded him.

He opened a cocaine vial from his blazer pocket and snorted from the tip of his manicured pinky nail. The instant high jacked his energy level. Long on revelry and short on sleep, the bump kept him alert and on edge.

Minutes passed.

The plane’s delay clouded his head with paranoia. His patience waned. Everything was taking too long. Way too long. He’d doled out a lot of cash to secure reliable transportation. Transportation that failed to arrive on time. No one in a cartel family would stand for this treatment, he thought. Why should I?

He checked his watch.

The what ifs began to freefall.

Was I followed? Who else knew about the destination? Did I pick the wrong hangar? Why did Dutch leave the limo for a smoke? And what the fuck’s taking so long?

He pulled out a converted TEC-9 from a gym bag and tapped the chauffer window with the muzzle. “Stay here.”

Dirt crunched under Leland’s boots outside the Hummer. The smell of burned tobacco lingered in the humid air as he stepped over a pair of wheel chocks beside a grease stain embedded in the cracked concrete floor. An engine hoist stood inside a small workshop with a rolling tool chest and a pair of hundred gallon fuel drums. A chain and pulley hung from the rafters.

Leeland checked the empty runway and doubled back toward the hangar’s makeshift waiting room. He kicked the door open and charged inside, restraining his trigger finger from unleashing the TEC-9’s fury. A big screen television, wet bar, and plush leather chairs occupied the otherwise empty space. A chain and padlock secured the emergency exit.

The sound of footsteps brought him full circle to the workspace with the hundred gallon drums. He panned the submachine gun and signaled for the limo driver to stay put.

A shadow moved on the corrugated steel wall behind him.

A metallic clink made him jump.

“Jesus Christ!” he shouted at his bodyguard. “You scared the shit out of me!”

The bodyguard stowed his gold lighter and blew smoke. “Take it easy with that—”

“I nearly blew your fucking head off,” Leeland vented. He brushed a grease smear on his coat sleeve. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The Hummer revved loudly and sped away in reverse, leaving a patch of burned rubber in its tracks.

Greeted with the sound of police sirens, the bodyguard pulled the pair of .45s from his shoulder rig and fired at the flashing blue lights outside the hangar.

A deputy sheriff rammed the runaway limo while a second patrol car screeched to a stop. Cops scurried for cover like roaches in an all-night diner. Flash-bang grenades bounced inside the hangar and exploded.

Leeland fired a long burst from the thirty-six-round clip, stitching holes in the car blocking his exit.

The bodyguard ran sideways and shot at anything that moved. Bullets ricocheted through plumes of caustic smoke that followed him through the lethal mêlée. Empty brass clanged against the floor.

Leeland fired wildly, hitting everything but the human targets in front of him. “Kill them all!” he shouted without any inclination of how badly the odds played out. He ran toward the back room and slammed the door behind him. He propped a chair to block the entrance and turned his attention to the emergency exit.

He emptied the TEC-9 at the padlock and rammed his body at the exit door. He tossed the weapon and sprinted for the dense tree line a hundred yards from the hangar.

Out of breath and out of immediate danger, he glanced over his shoulder to glimpse at the chaos he abandoned. He ventured deeper into the woods before a round from a silenced .22 pierced his thigh muscle and lodged inside his femur.

Leeland dropped to the ground and pressed his hand on the burning wound. He crawled sideways on his good leg, pawing at the dirt with his free hand, his pants soaked in urine.

“Your flight’s been canceled,” said Blanchart, who emerged from the darkness wearing night vision goggles and a backpack with a folding shovel.

“Who are you?” Leeland asked.

Blanchart removed the goggles and let his eyes adjust to the natural moonlight. He compared the photo from his pocket to the suspect on the ground. “You’re a hard man to find.”

“I need a doctor!” cried Leeland. His heart raced from the drugs and adrenaline in his system.

“You need a lesson.” Blanchart waited for the sound of gunfire to subside. He kept his radio on mute. “You’ve been stepping on my product,” he said. He pressed his boot on Leland’s leg. “Who do you work for?”

“Nobody.”

“I need a name.”

“Fuck you!” Leeland hissed, the initial pain from the gunshot obscured by the mixture of alcohol and cocaine in his system. “You’re a dead man. I’ll kill your wife. I’ll kill your children. I’ll kill your fucking dog.”

Blanchart shot him in the kneecap.

This time the pain dropped a bomb on Leeland Marks like an ax split his leg in half.

“I need a name,” said Blanchart.

Leeland cowered at the base of a tree, his leg on fire from the bullet lodged between his bone and tendons. “I want a lawyer!”

“That ship’s sailed. I can’t help you unless you let me.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

Blanchart aimed the silencer at Leland’s good leg.

“Who hired you?” Leeland asked in desperation. “Whatever they’re paying you I’ll double it. I’ll triple it!”

“I need a name.”

“There is no fucking name,” Leeland cried. “I run the operation myself.”

Blanchart fired at Leland’s other kneecap.

Leeland moaned in agony, his body incapacitated from strategically-placed shots to his lower limbs. “He’ll kill my family if I talk. I have a wife and kids. I’ll give you everything I have. Twenty million dollars. Cash.”

Blanchart knelt down beside his victim and pressed the silenced muzzle to Leland’s groin. “I need a name.”

“Uri Costa… He—he financed the operation. He has Columbian connections.”

“Where is he?”

“He works out of LA. I never met him face to face. That’s all I know. I swear…”

Blanchart aimed the gun at Leland’s head. “What else?”

“That’s it…”

“Give me your right hand,” said Blanchart.

“What for?”

Blanchart pressed the muzzle at Leland’s temple. “Give me your hand.”

Leeland let go of his wounded knee and extended a shaky arm to Blanchart.

Blanchart grabbed the arm and twisted sharply to lock the joints in a straight position. With control of the limb, he slid the gun in his holster and said, “Hold still.” He retrieved a pair of pruning shears from his zipper pocket and pressed the scissor blades to the base of Leland’s thumb. He squeezed hard to snip off the manicured digit in one cut.

Leeland screamed in agony.

“Almost there,” said Blanchart. He touched the blades to the base of the index finger and clamped down again, lopping the digit like a piece of dried kindling.

Leeland screamed as he clutched his three-finger hand. “You said… You said you’d help me.”

Blanchart pressed the muzzle to Leland’s forehead and pulled the trigger twice. “I just did.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 15

Jamie stood barefoot on the scale inside the doctor’s office and nudged the balance bar to the right. She knew without reading the hash marks that she’d lost five pounds overnight. She could almost feel the weight melt away from the back of her legs where her slender thighs met her hips, the part she worked hardest to keep firm by jogging every morning after Alan left for work.

Convinced the scale was never calibrated properly, she stepped down from the base plate and sat on the crinkly white paper stretched across the doctor’s examination table. An otoscope with disposable plastic ear speculums hung on the opposite wall beside a poster on lung disease that warned about the dangers of smoking.

She scooted back on the table and checked her watch. She had errands to run, a house to clean, and dinner to prepare by six. The car needed gas. The bills needed stamps. She needed chemicals for the pool and fabric softener for the washing machine. She had shirts at the dry cleaners and a basket of laundry to fold.

She kept every facet of her life on schedule, right down to the time she ventured outside for the morning paper in the driveway. Her life existed not as Jamie Blanchart but as the wife of Sheriff Alan Blanchart. She loved him for the man who once showered her with attention; who brought her flowers every weekend and worshiped the ground she walked on. But over time, her love had turned to fear. She missed her parents. She missed her friends. Most of all, she missed the Jamie Blanchart she used to know—and cringed at the woman she barely recognized.

A soft knock preceded the doctor’s entrance. “Good morning,” he offered Jamie as he entered the room with her patient file. A third generation dermatologist with four grandchildren and a head of silver hair, he conveyed a warm demeanor.

“Good morning,” Jamie responded with her head down.

“How long has it been since your last exam?” the doctor asked.

“About a year.”

The doctor reviewed her medical history. He noted the loss in weight and the elevated blood pressure readings. “So what brings you here today?”

Jamie nudged her blouse below her shoulder to expose the butterfly tattoo on her back. “I need to get this removed.”

The doctor cleared his throat and sat on the rolling stool. “Go ahead and turn around. I need you to remove your shirt so I can examine the area more closely. You can leave your bra on.”

Jamie lifted her blouse over her head. Faint bruising along her side marred an otherwise flawless torso.

The doctor noticed the obvious signs of physical abuse, which suggested more about Sheriff Blanchart than he cared to know, especially in a town where the law’s reach extended beyond the boundaries of its own authority.

He pressed on Jamie’s side to assess the condition of the bruising near her ribs. “Does this hurt?”

“A little,” said Jamie, despite the intensity of the pain.

“I’d like to get an X-ray. Just to rule out any fractures.”

“I’m fine. I slipped in the tub and landed funny. It looks worse than it feels.”

“Has this happened before?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?” the doctor challenged her.

“Positive.”

“You should be more careful,” the doctor cautioned. He touched the tattoo. “How long have you had this?”

“Since college.”

Jamie felt cold hands on her skin. “What’s your opinion on laser removal?”

“Given the size and location of your tattoo, you would be a good candidate for that procedure. It’s uncomfortable and usually takes several visits to obliterate the pigment. We could freeze the area instead and use a rotary abrasion instrument to remove the image.”

“You mean grind it away?”

“It’s not as harsh as it sounds. I use a local anesthetic to numb the area.” He examined the butterfly wings more closely, noting the mix of colors injected under the skin. “Another option is a surgical excision to remove the image with a scalpel.” He pinched the skin. “I might be able to excise the entire area in one visit.”

“What about scarring?”

“There would be some scarring.”

“How much?”

The doctor removed his gloves. “That depends on the individual person. It varies from patient to patient. Go ahead and put your shirt back on.”

“What do you think I should do?”

“In your case, laser treatment might be the best alternative. It will take a few weeks for the skin to heal, but it’s the least invasive procedure.”

Jamie climbed down from the examination table. Her cell phone vibrated in her purse. “How soon can you schedule me?”

“My receptionist can set that up for you.”

Jamie read Alan’s name from the caller ID. She had two minutes to reply before Alan called again—and got angry. “I have to go.”

The doctor stood in front of her for a moment. “I’d like to schedule you for an x-ray on your ribs. It shouldn’t take long.”

“I’m fine,” said Jamie. “Really. It’s just a bruise.”

“Most likely, but I won’t know for certain without examining the film.”

“I really have to go.”

“What about the next time?”

“I told you,” said Jamie. “It was an accident.”

“Accidents like those have a way of getting progressively worse.”

Jamie reached for the door. “What are you suggesting?”

“Nothing, Mrs. Blanchart. Nothing at all.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 10

Liberated from the confines of the halfway house tyranny, Lloyd rode the Triumph with the wind in his hair and the morning sun on his face; the drone from the vertical twin motor was a constant companion that propelled the vintage bike and its rider at the posted speed limit.

He relished the thrill of two-wheel travel, his mind telepathically linked to the bike’s handlebars, which responded to the slightest downward pressure on either side. He pressed left, and the bike leaned left. He pressed right, and the bike responded accordingly, its four-hundred-pound weight moving with the grace and agility of an all-star running back.

Miles of hot pavement rolled under the Triumph’s wheels and tingled Lloyd’s senses with sweet persuasion. Above him, tattered wisps of foamy white clouds hovered on a boundless canvas of azure sky more breathtaking than anything he had ever seen. Or anything he’d ever imagined in prison.

Never ride faster than your angel can fly, his dad would preach in his brain-bowl helmet with a broken chin strap. And in a way, Lloyd felt like maybe his dad was riding with him—or at least keeping tabs on his prized possession from somewhere beyond the grave.

Despite the turbulent airflow swirling about his chest and head, Lloyd enjoyed the sensory overload from his immediate surroundings.

He applied the brakes when he reached a pock-marked stop sign tilted sideways by the edge of the road—a victim of shotgun joyrides and gale force winds from a tropical storm the year before.

Throughout the residential area, ubiquitous blue tarps sheltered damaged roof tops with missing shingles and exposed plywood panels. Corrugated shutters covered windows of vacant homes built on tiny parcels carved side by side on prickly, sun-baked lawns while their snowbird owners enjoyed the cooler weather up north until the first autumn chill drove them back to their seasonal retreats.

He turned right and continued in low gear until he found the familiar entrance to the trailer park community he once grew up in.

He rode to Josh’s unit and killed the engine. A pair of sandhill cranes squawked above him as they flew over the property.

He dropped the kickstand and leaned the bike toward a blue Geo Metro with missing hubcaps and a broken antenna. He swung his right leg over the seat and unzipped his leather jacket. A light breeze greeted the sweat-soaked shirt that clung to his muscular physique.

A woman’s silhouette appeared behind the trailer’s screen-door, her long hair draped on the front of her shoulders. Thin bands of smoke ascended from the cigarette between her fingers.

“Can I help you?” Sheila Jarvis asked behind the screen. She drew a long breath from the Marlboro Light and parted a lock of hair from her emerald eyes.

“I’m looking for Josh Sullivan. Does he still live here?”

“Who are you?”

“His brother.”

“Josh doesn’t have a brother.”

“That’s what he told you?” Lloyd pointed to the Geo. “That’s his car.”

“How do you know?”

“He was drunk when he broke that antenna in half. He tried to hit me with it when I took his keys.”

Sheila blew smoke through the screen. “How come he lied about you?”

“I’ve been gone a long time.”

“So has my cherry. That doesn’t mean I forgot my first time.” Lloyd watched her eyes as she looked him up and down. “You don’t look like him. He’s not here.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“He comes and goes.”

A baby cried inside the trailer. A long, high-pitched wail that screamed I’m hungry.

Sheila opened the screen-door far enough to flick her cigarette butt. “I have to go.”

Lloyd turned to leave. “If you see Josh, tell him I was here.”

Sheila disappeared inside the trailer and returned with an infant in her arms. She pointed to the faded red ’69 Mustang pulling in beside the community mailbox. “Tell him yourself.”

Lloyd watched his lanky six-foot, six-inch brother unfold himself from the two-door coupe with mag wheels and rusted rocker panels.

“What are you doing here?” Josh asked, a full head taller than his older adopted sibling.

Lloyd reached his arm around Josh’s back and hugged him.

Josh reciprocated with an awkward embrace. He looked down at Lloyd through dark sunglasses. “When did you get out?”

“Two days ago. I made parole.”

“That’s great.” Josh squeezed the bridge of his nose and invited Lloyd inside the trailer.

Clutter was everywhere. A box fan blew air at the thrift store furniture beside a stroller and an infant car seat. A blanket with baby toys covered the floor beneath a plasma television. On the opposite wall, a broken window air conditioner protruded near a black cello case on wheels.

“Do you play?” asked Lloyd.

“It’s Sheila’s.”

Josh shook a crumpled pack of cigarettes and offered a smoke to his brother.

“I’ll pass,” said Lloyd.

“Since when?” Josh rubbed his teeth with his tongue. He followed Sheila and the baby toward the back of the trailer. She carried a bottle of formula and a burp cloth.

Lloyd watched as Sheila cradled her baby in her arm and tested the formula on her inside wrist. He could see her whispering at Josh—knew she was asking about him.

Josh bolstered his reply. “I didn’t know he was coming.”

Josh closed the door on Sheila and returned to the front of the trailer. “The baby’s not mine,” he told Lloyd. “I hooked up with Sheila after she got pregnant with her ex. I didn’t realize at the time…” He lit a cigarette. “Can’t smoke near the baby.”

“That’s smart,” said Lloyd.

Josh twisted two cans of Bud from the six-pack holder in the fridge and tossed one at Lloyd who caught the errant pass high and right. “Did you play ball in prison?”

“Not really.”

“What was it like?”

“Like no place you want to be.” Lloyd savored the flavor of cheap beer. Even the crappy stuff tasted better than the prison hooch he choked down on occasion. “You’re still driving that same piece of shit?”

“I’ve had it since high school,” Josh recalled. “I still remember hiding in the back when Mom drove us.” He shared a laugh with his brother.

Lloyd snorted beer through his nose. “You asked her to ride in the trunk.”

Josh nodded. “That turd on wheels was the worst part about going to school. I told Mom I’d rather walk to the prom.”

“You never went to the prom,” said Lloyd. And in the same instant, he regretted the comment. “You didn’t miss anything.”

Josh dropped his cigarette in his beer can. The burning tobacco fizzled. “It’s not my dream car, but it runs.”

“Funny how things change.”

“Serious… Is that Dad’s bike outside?”

“I got it running.”

“I’ll trade you,” Josh offered.

“You don’t know how to ride.”

Josh lit another cigarette. “That never stopped me before.” He wiped the edge of his nose. “Sheila lets me drive her car for errands. I drive the beater to work.”

“Are you still working hard or hardly working?”

“I did construction for a long time. The builder let me go last year when the market took a dump. I was making eighteen an hour with overtime. People would camp out to buy a house that cost three times what it was worth. Now you can’t give them away.”

Lloyd stared at the baby blanket on the rug. “What about school?”

Josh ignored the question and gathered toys from the floor by the baby swing. “You haven’t changed in eight years.”

“Ten,” Lloyd corrected him.

“You still look ripped. Must have pumped a lot of iron in prison.”

“A little.”

“What was the food like?”

“It sucked.”

“Did you get in fights?”

Lloyd crumpled his empty beer can. “Where should I put this?”

“Under the sink.”

Lloyd pushed the can in the trash. “Mom asked about you.”

Josh nodded. His cigarette bounced in the corner of his mouth when he talked. “That must have been the booze talking.”

“When’s the last time you saw her?”

“Last summer.”

“She’s sick, you know.”

Josh dumped the rest of his beer in the kitchen sink. “You wanna see something cool?”

“Will it get me arrested?”

Josh put his fingers in his mouth and pulled his dentures out. He flashed a toothless grin. “Don’t try this at home.”

Lloyd stared at his brother.

“Pretty cool,” Josh mumbled with a toothless grin. He wiggled his jaw and popped the dentures back in. “It’s hard to talk without them.”

“What happened?”

“The meth rotted out my teeth. My front ones were in pretty bad shape. The dentist had to pull a couple molars in the back. It hurt like hell for a week.” He bit down to seat the dentures. “I feel like an old man sometimes, but at least I can chew again.”

“Do you still get high?”

Josh pressed his tongue against his gum line to adjust the fit. “I’ve been clean for three years. After you were busted I hit a wall and started chasing the wrong crowd. I was good at that, I guess.” He avoided eye contact with Lloyd. “Nobody wants to grow up and be a junkie.”

“No worries,” Lloyd reassured him. “That’s behind you now.”

“You need a place to crash?”

“I’m good for the next sixty days. The state has me chained to a halfway house. Part of my parole agreement.”

“That sucks.”

“It’s better than the alternative.”

Josh shoved his hand in his pocket. “You need some cash?”

Lloyd shrugged. “I’ll find work.”

Josh pulled out a crumpled Jackson and offered it to his brother. “It’s all I have on me.”

“Put your money away.”

“Take it.”

“I didn’t come here to ask for money.”

“It’s not a handout. It’s a loan.”

Lloyd took the bill. “I’ll pay you back.”

Josh smoked his second cigarette to the butt and snuffed it in the sink. “Sheila’s got a girlfriend I could hook you up with.”

“I’ll pass.”

“She’s got a nice body.”

Sheila entered the room with one hand supporting her baby’s soggy bottom and the other on his back. “We’re out of diapers,” she blurted.

“I bought two boxes this morning,” said Josh. “They’re in the trunk.”

“Can you get them, please? My hands are kind of full right now.”

“In a second.”

“When are you going to fix the AC? It feels like Hell’s Kitchen in here.”

“Put a cold washcloth on your face.”

Sheila cradled her baby. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

“That’s what you said yesterday.”

“I had to work a double shift.”

“You didn’t have to watch the football game.”

Josh tapped Lloyd on the arm. “I’ll be right back.”

“You need help?” Lloyd offered.

“I got it.”

Lloyd wiped his forehead. Despite the fan blowing, he could feel the sweat dripping down his face. “What’s his name?” he asked Sheila.

Sheila dabbed the burp cloth on her baby’s mouth. “Logan.”

“He has your eyes.”

“He has his moments. I never planned on getting pregnant.”

“How old is he?”

Sheila stared at the cross tattoo on Lloyd’s forearm. “Twelve weeks.” She also noticed his boots and the bulge from his ankle monitor. Lloyd watched her face change as the pieces suddenly came together. “When did you get out?”

Lloyd opened the screen-door.

Josh balanced two boxes of Huggies on his arm. “I bought the good ones like you asked,” he said.

Sheila rolled her eyes. “You got the wrong size again.”

The infant cried in fits and starts.

Sheila countered with a gentle bounce and a vigorous pat on the back. “How come you never told me you had a brother in prison?”

“Ahh… probably because it was none of your business.”

The baby screamed.

“I’m on parole,” Lloyd confessed.

“For what?” asked Sheila.

“Doesn’t matter,” Josh defended his brother.

Sheila switched the baby to her other shoulder. “You promised me you were clean.”

“I am,” Josh argued.

“Then what is he doing here?”

“He came to see me.”

Sheila rolled her eyes. “Exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

Sheila tore a fresh diaper from the box and carried the baby away. “I think your brother should leave.”

“He’s family.”

“Not to me.”

Lloyd let himself out. “I’ll catch up later.”

Josh followed him to the driveway. “Wait up.”

“I’ve got a long ride back,” said Lloyd. He threw his leg over the bike and centered the front wheel. Then he keyed the ignition and started the motor.

Josh looked back at the trailer. “She gets like that when she’s on the rag. You just have to tune her out.”

Lloyd checked the view in his mirrors. “It’s cool.”

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” said Lloyd.

Josh pulled a business card from his wallet. “I manage a car wash in Plant City about forty minutes from here. We could use some extra help. The pay sucks, but it’s better than nothing. If you come by early, I’ll introduce you to the owner.”

Lloyd kept the bike in neutral. “I’ve got a curfew at ten.”

“We close at seven.”

Lloyd rolled the bike backwards. He pulled the clutch and notched the transmission in gear. “I’ll think about it.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 6

Jamie used a wooden spoon to chip away at a frozen clump of beef stew in a three-quart saucepan on the stove. An under-cabinet radio played a smooth jazz melody from her favorite radio station. The music carried her to a better place. A time when life was simple and unadulterated from the influence of her significant other. A time when her needs came first, and the dormant temper of Alan Blanchart remained as stationary and uneventful as the leftover entrée on her flat top range.

The music segued to commercials. The washer hit the spin cycle in the laundry room, gyrating the unbalanced load in the oversized tub.

She sliced a cucumber and added it to the grated carrots and diced tomato in the bowl of mixed greens. She sprinkled fresh parmesan and added homemade croutons to the mix the way Alan liked it.

With dinner preparations nearly finished, she hung her apron in the pantry and hauled a load of clean laundry from the dryer to her bedroom.

She folded Alan’s shirts in a neat and orderly fashion. She folded his socks and underwear in the same manner, placing each garment in her husband’s bureau drawer. Socks to the left. Underwear to the right. White T-shirts belonged in the bottom drawer stacked in piles of three.

She wiped the sinks in the bathrooms and mopped the floors. She dusted the family room and the dining room table. She took out the trash and cleaned the windows.

Chores were a fact of life. A nuisance at times, but one she could live with. They kept her busy and provided a welcome distraction from her menial existence as the wife of Sheriff Blanchart. Dreams came and went, yet her married life persisted, despite the challenges and the ambiguity that defined where Alan’s life ended and hers began.

Settled in the quiet, rural suburb of Lakewood, Florida, she kept her business to herself. From all accounts, the neighbors respected her privacy, going out of their way to steer clear of an awkward conversation with the small town sheriff’s wife who came and went at prescribed times. Girl Scouts shied away. Trick-or-treaters kept their distance at Halloween. The mailman slipped in and out like a ghost.

She wiped a smudge from the bathroom mirror in the foyer and cleaned the sink with a disinfectant wipe. She folded the hand towel in thirds and placed a fresh roll of toilet paper on the spool. Then she grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen on the third ring and answered, “Hello?”

“Can you hear me?” Samantha Perkins shouted over a spirited MC and loud strip club music.

Jamie could tell her caller, as usual, was in the strip club where she worked. “Barely,” she replied.

Samantha apparently moved away from the source of the music. “How ’bout now?”

“A little better.” Jamie stirred the saucepan and mashed the big wooden spoon at the melting clump of stew. She covered the top with a lid and adjusted the burner. “Are you at work?”

“Just changing. You sound distracted. Is this a bad time?”

“It’s fine,” Jamie lied with an eye on the microwave timer. “I’m cooking dinner,” she said, retrieving her apron from the pantry.

“Where’ve you been? I left you messages. I thought maybe you went into witness protection or something.”

Jamie watched the pool boy through the kitchen window. His tan arms flexed inside his muscle shirt as he brushed the pool up and down. “I’m just busy.”

“Are you back to work yet?”

“I’m staying home.”

“I thought you took that nursing job?”

“I turned it down.”

“Why?”

“Alan needs me at home.”

“You’ll go crazy at home,” Samantha insisted.

Jamie rubbed her hands on her apron. “Are you on break?”

“I go on stage in five minutes.” Samantha sneezed. “Charley sent me flowers.”

Jamie smiled. She could hear the excitement in her best friend’s voice. “The guy you met on-line?”

“He had them delivered to the club.”

“He’s falling hard for you.”

“You think?”

“How many dates have you had with him?” Jamie asked.

“Three.”

“Did you kiss him?”

“We covered that base on our first date.”

“Was it good?”

“Amazing.”

“You always say that.”

“I’m serious this time.”

Jamie sprinkled salt and pepper in the stew. The taste was close but not quite to Alan’s liking. “What’s so great about his guy?”

“He listens to me,” Samantha said. “He cares about me as a person, not an object.”

Jamie tucked the phone between her chin and shoulder. She added more pepper to the simmering meal and stirred the pot. “He wants to get inside your pants.” She paused before the next words came out of her mouth. An extended silence persisted on the line. “You already slept with him didn’t you.”

“I’m a dancer, not a slut.”

“That’s why he sent you roses.”

“I didn’t say they were roses,” Samantha said.

“You’re unbelievable. You just met this guy on-line.”

“He’s not a creep.”

“That doesn’t mean you should sleep with him on your first date.”

“It was our second. And I couldn’t help myself. I feel this amazing chemistry between us. Like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

Jamie stuck the wooden spoon in her mouth and pretended to gag. “I still think you should take it slow.”

“Look who’s talking,” Samantha countered. “What about you and Kyle Miller? Or Ben Redcliff. Or that ski instructor you hooked up with over Christmas break in college? You practically jumped his bones the minute we got back to the lodge.”

“I was taking lessons from him.”

Samantha laughed. “I bet you were.”

Jamie laid the wooden spoon on a plate. “I just hate to see you get burned again.”

“I can take care of myself. You’re the one with the perfect life in your sunny Florida home with a pool.”

Jamie laid the placemats on the table. “It’s not as easy as you think.”

“That’s why I’m coming down for your birthday.”

“Sam—”

“It’s not a debate. I felt bad when I missed your party last year.”

“I never had a party last year.”

“Exactly. And you didn’t turn forty last year.”

“I don’t want to turn forty this year.”

“Any woman would kill to have a figure like yours at your age.”

Jamie switched the phone to her other ear. “I’ll put that in my diary.”

“Make sure you write in big letters,” Samantha teased, “so you can read them without your glasses.” She laughed to herself. “I’m serious about your birthday. We’ll rent a limo in Miami and go club hopping. I’ll take you to a Chippendales show.”

“Alan would never go for that.”

“What your hubby doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“It’s not the strippers,” said Jamie. She grabbed plates from the cabinet and set the table. Her neck hurt from craning it against the phone. “He’s strict about other people staying over.”

“Forget about him. This is your birthday.”

“I should probably do something simple at home,” said Jamie.

“Why don’t you come up here? We can see a show. Go out for Sushi. We’ll have a girls’ weekend in New York.”

“I can’t afford it right now.”

“I’ll buy your ticket. Call it an early birthday present.”

Jamie set the silverware by the dinner plates. “Alan won’t let me.”

“Since when do you need his permission? It’s one weekend, Jamie. You deserve it.”

Jamie paced back and forth. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Alan needs me at home. Work’s been stressful for him lately.”

“Alan can survive one weekend without you.”

Jamie caught the headlights in the front bay window as Alan’s cruiser turned into the driveway. “He’s home. I have to go.”

“I’m serious, Jamie. Don’t be a stranger. You’re going to have fun on your birthday if I have to come down there and steal you away myself.”

Jamie heard the door open and hung up. “You’re home early,” she announced as the sheriff emerged from the laundry room entrance.

Blanchart hugged his wife before he removed his duty belt and hung it in the closet. “Smells good,” he said. He followed Jamie to the kitchen. “I’m starving.”

Jamie stirred the pot with her back to him. “How was your day?”

“Predictable.”

“Did you make the funeral arrangements?” Jamie asked over her shoulder.

“It’s taken care of.”

“How is Deputy Carter’s wife holding up?”

Blanchart rubbed her shoulders. “You feel tense. You should take a hot bath tonight.”

Jamie turned down the burner and dipped a ladle in the stew. “How’s your hand?”

Blanchart kissed her nape. “Better, now that you’re here.”

“I have salad to put out.”

“Leave it.”

“I thought you were hungry?”

“I ate a big lunch.”

Jamie turned around and kissed him on the cheek. “Dinner’s ready, silly.”

Blanchart checked the caller ID list on the house phone. “Who called?”

“Samantha.”

“Your stripper friend from New York?”

“She’s a dancer.”

“What did she want?”

“She wanted to talk about her new boyfriend.”

“What else?”

“Nothing. She asked about my birthday. She wants to come down and spend the weekend with me.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I told her I’d talk to you about it.”

Alan dipped the wooden spoon in the stew and licked it. The broth was bland. The potatoes overcooked. The house was clean, but his wife smelled dirty. “What did you do to your hair?”

“I added some highlights.”

“You look cheap.”

“I can take them out.”

Blanchart glared at Jamie with piercing eyes. “You can’t undo a mistake like that.”

“The color wears out.”

“So does my patience.”

Jamie cowered from her husband. “I’m sorry… I just thought it might be nice to try something different. I didn’t think you would notice that much.”

Blanchart jammed the spoon in the stew. “Then why bother to mess with your hair at all?” He looked out the kitchen window and scowled at the pool boy with sandy blond hair and an easy smile. “Who are you trying to impress?”

“No one.”

Blanchart closed the window shade. Veins twitched in his forehead. His eyes were red with fury. “If you’re lying to me…”

“I’m not,” Jamie insisted. “I swear.”

Blanchart cupped a clammy hand on Jamie’s mouth and squeezed her face hard enough to control her head movement without bruising her cheeks. He shoved her against the hot oven door. “Your appearance reflects on me. God knows what the hell you’ve been doing in this house all day besides playing with your hair, but you better pray your housework is done.” Saliva frothed at the corner of his mouth. “A good wife knows her place.”

Jamie stood on her toes. Her eyes darted wildly back and forth. “You’re hurting me,” she mumbled through Blanchart’s grasp.

“Can you be a good wife for me? Can you?”

Jamie nodded.

“I can’t hear you.”

“Yes,” Jamie squeaked through fish lips.

Blanchart let go. “I’m going out of town for a few days. Can I trust you while I’m gone?”

Jamie wiped the smeared mascara on her teary face. “Of course.”

Blanchart brushed his hand against her hair. “Cancel the pool service. You can manage the pool by yourself from now on.” He touched the stitches on his hand and made a fist. “And make sure you wash your car when I’m gone. It looks like shit in my garage.”

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 2

Lloyd Sullivan clenched the vertical iron bars inside the maximum security cell he called home. Clean-shaven with sky-blue eyes and light brown hair, he wore thin sideburns along his chiseled jaw line. He stood tall in his white T-shirt stretched taut over sharply defined pecs, shoulders, and biceps that complemented his powerful legs shaped like twin towers of solid oak.

A few feet away, his cell-mate stretched out on the lower bunk with an open book propped on his chest.

“What time is it?” Lloyd asked with his back to the older, wiser inmate serving life for a crime of passion.

“Staring out that cage won’t make it go any faster.”

Lloyd relaxed his grip. A long-time resident in the house of no remorse, he was waiting for his second chance at life outside the concrete walls of the eight-by-nine bunker he occupied twenty-three hours a day.

Lloyd masked his emotions behind an intrepid gaze and filtered his inner voice from the clamor of jeering inmates while he rehearsed the performance of a lifetime. For months, his cell-mate coached him on body language and facial gestures. The prison librarian schooled him on proper diction, the importance of good eye contact, and how to establish a warm rapport with a skeptical audience.

“You know what this means?” Lloyd’s cell-mate asked without looking up from his book.

Lloyd turned his head. “I won’t have to look at your ugly mug anymore?”

“Just keep it real. You’re a better man because of time spent in this place, not in spite of it. Today is yours to win or lose. Don’t fuck it up.”

Lloyd stepped back from the bars when the lurking day shift guard approached the cell in steel-toed boots. A stocky, Viking-size man with meaty arms, the guard moonlighted in a mixed martial arts dojo. On routine prison days, he carried a ruthless reputation inside the compound. This time, he carried an assortment of thick leather belts, chains, handcuffs, and enough cans of Mace to suppress a small riot.

“Open on twelve!” the hulking guard called to the shift supervisor who manned a panel of blue and red buttons inside the control room’s impact-resistant bubble.

The sliding steel bars at Lloyd’s cell opened with a metallic ratchet sound.

“Move back,” the guard instructed Lloyd. “Farther.”

Lloyd kept his arms in front, elbows bent, palms up, exposing a large crucifix tattoo on his right inside forearm.

“You know the drill,” the guard continued. His breath reeked of spicy garlic chicken. “Strip down. Throw your clothes in the corner.”

Lloyd pulled his shirt over his broad shoulders revealing granite abs and a three-inch scar under his right armpit. He dropped his boxers and assumed the position, devoid of modesty or shame while his prison escort conducted the routine inspection.

“Open your mouth and lift up your tongue.”

Lloyd complied.

“Show me your hands,” the guard instructed. “Now run them through your hair. Let me see behind your ears. Put your hands in the air and turn around. Wiggle your toes. Bend over. Spread your cheeks. Cough. Get dressed.”

Outside the cell, Lloyd shuffled along the hallway in wrist restraints and ankle bracelets designed to inhibit a prisoner’s forward motion. Rows of locked windows trapped stagnant, humid air inside the overcrowded D-block.

Keys rattled.

Toilets flushed.

Raving inmates exchanged obscenities from their carbon copy digs, each equipped with a wall-mounted double bunk, an unmovable stool, and a combination stainless-steel sink and toilet.

In the shadows, straight-off-the-bus newbies languished within the jaws of the penitentiary on a futile quest for anonymity. Dressed in prison-issue skivvies with elastic waistbands two sizes too big, they found their squalid conditions in stark contrast to their comfy suburban lifestyle.

Lloyd proceeded down the metal staircase to the bottom tier constructed with a series of hallways jutting out like spokes on a wheel. Above him, inmates barked, howled, and snorted like caged beasts, stuffing blankets and sheets in their toilets in an effort to flood their cells. Dried feces clung to rolls of hurled toilet paper that descended from the upper tier. The pervasive odor of spilled urine and tobacco smoke hung in the air with the buzz of fluorescent ballasts, blaring televisions, institutional loudspeakers, and the ever-present gangster rap that defined the prison life bedlam.

Escorted by the Viking guard in front and a second man behind, Lloyd followed a maze of gates and fences until he entered the yard—where the general population gathered in cliques behind a two-story fence topped with hoops of glistening concertina wire. Lloyd recognized the prisoners who slinked along the east wall to congregate among themselves and avoid the guards dressed in gray slacks, white shirts, and maroon ties. On the west side, groups of fierce, lean, and muscular inmates commandeered the weight pile equipped with bench press machines, crooked barbells, and rusted plates. Rival gangs occupied the wobbly bleachers, employing subtle nods and hand gestures to communicate surreptitiously with other members they instructed to bury knives and pipes in the yard. Above the chaos, Lloyd spotted the guards who monitored the confined space with automatic rifles, housed inside four air-conditioned towers aligned equidistant around the property.

Sensing danger, Lloyd shifted his attention front and center to ignore the Mexican Mafia soldiers approaching from the bleachers. At the edge of his peripheral vision, members of the Aryan Brotherhood gathered to show force against the Black Guerrilla Family lingering on the basketball courts.

Despite his best efforts, Lloyd had made his share of enemies during his tenure in the hostile environment. And none hated him more than the Mexican Mafia, who resented his stubborn propensity to side with the black population when the balance of power shifted.

“Yo hessay,” a Mafia soldier in sagging khaki pants and laced boots called out to Lloyd. “Where you going?”

Lloyd followed the guard in front of him, ignoring the young shot caller with arms sleeved out in dagger tattoos.

Irate at Lloyd’s indifference to his presence, the raging Mexican signaled for his posse to follow. “I’m talking to you, hessay.” He lifted his shirt to his chest to expose the bullet hole scars on his stomach.

“Move away,” the guard ordered.

“You got no play, homey,” the Mexican soldier heckled Lloyd. He waited for his men to cram behind him and surreptitiously pass the weapon—a basic shank fashioned from a broken chair leg that had been smuggled into the vocational training shop, sharpened, and then smuggled back out in a pouch sewn inside a jacket sleeve.

Lloyd deflected the taunts with unshakeable concentration, his mind centered on a single objective.

“I said wussup, vato,” the soldier persisted despite the guard’s verbal warning and the threat of a beanbag shot to the body from a rookie tower guard itching to pull the trigger. “Yo, motherfucker! I’m talkin’ at you!” Fueled by vengeance, the soldier charged at Lloyd with the shank concealed behind his forearm.

Lloyd embraced the attack in his shackled hands, using his wrist restraints to trap the ice pick weapon and throw his attacker violently to the ground with an elbow lock and a graceful redirection of force.

Before the other guards on the ground could respond, the control tower abandoned the usual warning shots and fired a barrage of bullets at the ground.

A hundred prisoners hit the dirt all at once.

The loudspeakers crackled. “Everybody on the ground! NOW!”

A buzzer signaled the staff to place the general population on lockdown. One guard confiscated the Mexican soldier’s weapon; another hauled the instigator to solitary confinement.

“Keep moving.” The big guard prodded Lloyd with his meat hook hands.

Lloyd ventured toward the gauntlet of security checkpoints positioned between the yard and the inside entrance to the “love shack”—a minimal security administrative services building that housed the paper pushers and served as a gateway between the incarcerated criminals and those free to come and go with the outside world.

A warning sign greeted Lloyd at the entrance. Large red letters made a statement about the authorized use of deadly force. Smaller print mentioned the use of video and audio surveillance.

Escorted by the guard, Lloyd entered a changing room and had his prisoner restraints removed under close supervision from another armed officer stationed in the admin services building.

Lloyd donned a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt. “I’m supposed to have shoes with these,” he said, his words squandered on indifferent ears.

Lloyd tucked in his shirt and followed the big guard to a conference room with a window air conditioner and a video surveillance camera mounted in the ceiling. A folding chair faced a metal table with a water pitcher and a tray of plastic cups on top.

“Sit down,” the guard instructed.

Lloyd planted himself in the kindergarten chair. He kept his posture ramrod straight with his hands in his lap and his wrists cuffed and fastened to a chain around his waist. His prison-issue slacks fit him loose and short, causing the pant legs to ride high above his bare feet in flip-flop sandals.

He recognized the conference room from his first parole board hearing. The same bland walls stared back at him. This time fresh paint fumes came through the ventilation ducts. If only for a short while, he relished his time in the peaceful enclave, removed from the D-block netherworld of perpetual disruption and violence. “I like what they did with the place,” he told his stone-face chaperone.

Minutes passed like hours while Lloyd waited for the four-member panel from the Florida Parole Commission to arrive.

Three middle-aged Caucasian men and an older Puerto Rican woman assumed their spot at the conference table. A court reporter set up a portable stenograph machine.

One panel member poured water. Another sneezed in a handkerchief. A third projected his own indifference toward the one person who stood between himself and an early lunch.

“Good morning,” the chairwoman said, acknowledging Lloyd.

“Good morning,” Lloyd replied with a smile.

“We’ve all read your file, Mr. Sullivan. Since this is not your first dance, I’ll get right to the point. You’ve had quite a ride in this facility, including a failed parole evaluation in 2007. Since that time, the court has asked this board to reexamine your case. We have. And to be honest, aside from your age, I’m not convinced much else has changed. What makes you think you’re more equipped to enter society today than you were the last time we met?”

Lloyd pondered this first of several probing questions designed to peel away the cheap veneer of false pretense and expose an inmate’s true state of rehabilitation. Three years ago, the panel had asked him the same question. This time, he’d prepared a more carefully thought-out answer.

A Dangerous Affair: Chapter 1

Red neon bled through the rumpled curtains in the squalid motel room where Sheriff Alan Blanchart tucked his shirttail into his polyester pants and zipped his fly. He peeled a hundred dollar bill from a silver money clip and gave it to the naked starlet perched on the bed in front of him. “You got a name?” he asked the alluring mocha-skinned girl who looked barely old enough to buy beer. He buttoned his collar and adjusted his tie on the crisp uniform shirt he wore beneath his bullet-proof vest.

The girl stuffed the cash in her purse. “Who do you want me to be?” She held a cigarette between slender fingernails painted with glitter polish and pulled the sheet above her chest. She scratched at the custom wig she wore over curly brown hair to cover a patch of disfigured scalp caught in the gears of a faulty circus ride.

Blanchart tied his patent leather shoes and admired his reflection in the high sheen finish.

The girl giggled. Dark mascara underscored her smoldering brown eyes. “You must get hot under all that gear.”

“Better to sweat than bleed.”

“Can I wear your badge?”

Blanchart scratched his finger on the thick mustache that hid a jagged scar on his lip, a childhood souvenir from repeated contact with his pappy’s fist. “You haven’t earned it.”

The girl blew smoke. “So what does it take to earn a shiny badge like that?”

Blanchart fastened his Boston Leather duty belt. He stared at the girl through malignant eyes and said, “More than you know.”

He tapped his wedding band on the wooden baton suspended from his belt. Marred with divots and scratches, the length of straight-grain hickory proved more useful at subduing perpetrators than the pepper spray or the twenty-thousand volt Taser he carried. In the hands of a trained operator, the head-cracking baton delivered a blunt force message loud enough for the deaf to hear.

The girl flicked ash on the carpet. She wanted to leave the bed and get dressed, but the vibe coming from her scabby John compelled her to stay.

Blanchart kneeled on the edge of the bed. His two-hundred-and-fifty-pound frame sunk into the worn mattress springs. He touched the girl’s face and felt her tremble under his callused hand. In some ways, she resembled his wife—the woman he swore an oath to love and cherish for as long as he walked the earth. In other ways, she personified everything he loathed about women who traded sex for money.

His pager chirped.

He read the message on the monochrome display and gathered his sheriff’s hat from the dresser. “I have to go.”

Outside the motel, he settled behind the wheel of his black Police Interceptor with tinted windows, dual exhaust, and a whip antenna on the trunk. Static crackled from the radio in the mobile command center, where a rugged laptop disclosed the criminal history on anyone with a valid name, license, or registered plate number. Dash-mounted radar kept tabs on speeders. Behind his seat, a Remington 870 shotgun kept the peace.

He drove fast, running parallel to the railroad tracks that bisected the small town of Lakewood, Florida. Population seventy thousand. A place where families raised their children in the relatively quiet confines of Sheriff Blanchart’s jurisdiction.

He delegated mundane tasks to subordinate officers, affording him the opportunity to manage his extracurricular activities. When time allowed, he fielded domestic disputes and the occasional burglary that often resulted from a drug addict trying to score. Despite the conservative, well educated, and mostly crime-free demographic, bad elements prevailed in the housing tracts meant to shelter the working poor.

He knifed his way through a construction zone outside a mobile home park where plastic pink flamingos decorated the entrance. He gunned the engine at a stop sign and detoured through a golf course neighborhood segregated by winding cul-de-sacs and man-made retention ponds. Guided by the map in his head, he followed the quickest route to the stretch of manufactured housing situated beyond an elementary school playground.

He slowed behind an empty patrol car parked more than a block from a ramshackle residence obscured by heaping fronds and overgrown bramble.

He keyed the mike on his lapel. “This is Blanchart. What’s your twenty?”

“I’m at the back of the residence,” a deputy replied over the radio. “The house with the blue tarp on the roof.”

Blanchart exited his car and slid the hickory baton through the brass ring holder on his belt. He unsnapped the leather holster strap and withdrew his service pistol. “Hold your position,” he said softly into his radio mike. “I’m approaching from the east side on foot.” He kept the muzzle down, advancing beyond a row of metal trash cans near the carport entrance.

He leaned against the stucco finish and peered inside an open window at the kitchen littered with jugs of antifreeze and open bottles of drain cleaner. Hundreds of empty pill packets filled a box in the corner. Ether-soaked coffee filters floated in a baking pan at one end of the warped kitchen counter. At the other end, a snarled web of colored extension cords fed a dozen hot plates from an overloaded power strip.

Blanchart craned his neck and saw a man in a gas mask emerge from the other room with a sawed-off shotgun resting on his shoulder. Behind him, jugs of hydrochloric acid sat precariously on a wobbly card table straddling cans of benzene and camp stove fuel. “I’ve got an armed perp with a shotgun,” he whispered into the mike. “Do you see him?”

“Negative, Sheriff,” the deputy replied, his voice barely audible from the lowest volume setting. “The house looks empty.”

“Secure the back of the residence,” Blanchart ordered. “Wait for my signal.” He maintained a two-hand grip on his service weapon and side-stepped around back with uncanny agility for a man his size.

He followed his deputy through the screened porch and they advanced inside the house single file. Accosted by the fog of phenyl-acetone and ethylene chloride vapors, he covered his mouth with his sleeve and assumed a position behind a load-bearing wall stacked with boxes of bubble wrap and plastic tubing. In twenty-two years of law enforcement, he’d confronted his share of paranoid junkies who had morphed into superhuman animals from prolonged exposure to their own product.

“Cop!” a muted voice shouted through a charcoal-filtered mask.

Blanchart ducked just before a twelve-gauge blast tore a crater-size hole above his head and pelted him with pulverized plaster.

He hugged the floor. Boxes toppled over him as he scuttled behind a sofa.

“Sheriff’s Department!” Blanchart hollered at the Kamikaze moron throwing shots in a house of flammable vapors.

The shooter racked the shotgun. A spent shell casing hit the floor and bounced sideways, trailing smoke.

“Can you see the shooter?” Blanchart called out to his deputy, choking on the bittersweet taste of heated ethylene glycol.

“In the kitchen,” the deputy replied.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m good,” the deputy shouted back.

Blanchart knew that despite objections from friends and family, his deputy had abandoned his teaching position to pursue a law enforcement career, arguing that a small town meant small crimes. In barely three years out of the academy, his deputy had nabbed his share of speeders and made his first DUI arrest a week before his twenty-fourth birthday. But the Sheriff knew that nothing his deputy had seen or done before could compare to the shit storm swirling around him right now

A screen-door slammed.

Blanchart peered around the sofa to see a second perp bolting from the front of the house. “Give it up,” he called out to the shooter in the kitchen. “Drop your weapon and come out where I can see you, slowly, with your hands behind your head.”

“Fuck you!” the gunman shouted, his voice muffled by the gas mask on his face.

“No one has to die today,” Blanchart reassured him. “We can walk out together—or I can haul you out in a body bag. The choice is yours.”

“I don’t trust cops.”

“You’re not alone,” Blanchart shouted back. “Wrong place, wrong time. It happens. Come out and we can talk about it. No one wants to see this go bad.” He pumped his fist at the deputy across the room and mouthed the word window. He drew a box shape in the air with his finger.

The deputy retreated through the screened porch at the back of the house and made his way toward the kitchen in the front.

“I’m not going down for this,” the gunman shouted.

“No one’s looking to jam you up,” Blanchart said to keep the conversation moving—and to buy more time. “I can’t help you unless you give up the gun.”

The masked shooter paced back and forth with the shotgun stock butted tight against his shoulder. He knew Sheriff Blanchart by reputation but never dreamed he’d confront the man face to face. “Let me walk and you can keep the product,” he bargained. “All of it.”

“You’re wasting my time.”

“I’ll give you names,” the shooter pleaded.

“Don’t want them.”

“I’ll give you locations.”

“Don’t need them.”

Blanchart saw the shooter blink behind the gas mask’s triangular eye pieces. He kicked a box of pill packets against the wall. The Sheriff had him cornered with one way in and no way out. “I’m not going back to the joint!”

“That’s not my call. Give up the weapon and come out with your hands where I can see them.”

The shooter unloaded two more shells in the sheriff’s direction, exploding a plume of sofa stuffing.

Blanchart hugged the carpet. His right leg burned from a superficial wound. “You’re not hearing me.”

“I’m not going back to prison.”

“I’m not sending you.”

The shooter loaded his last shotgun shell.

“Freeze!” the sheriff’s deputy shouted from outside the kitchen window.

The shooter tucked the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger. His head exploded like a watermelon, spackling the walls and ceiling with vaporized blood, bone fragments, and sticky grey matter.

The deputy reentered the house and gagged on the carnage smorgasbord. He braced a hand on his knee and vomited. “Why would he do that?”

Blanchart advanced. He holstered his service pistol and stepped around the body. “Did you get a good look at the second perp?”

The deputy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Caucasian. Late twenties. Thin build. Black hair. He had a tattoo on his neck.”

“You sure?”

“I’d recognize him if I saw him again.”

“You did good,” Blanchart assured him.

The deputy stared at the bloody corpse. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“People do crazy things.”

The deputy reached for his radio mike. “I’ll call it in.”

“I already did,” said Blanchart. He snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “How did you find this place?”

“Dispatch put out the call. I was first on the scene.”

Blanchart grabbed the bloody shotgun from the floor and loaded a new shell from his pocket. “You see anyone else besides this fool and the one that got away?”

“No,” the deputy answered. He moved slowly around the stockpile of explosive chemicals. “There’s enough shit in here to keep a dozen cooks busy full time. If I hadn’t found this place—”

Blanchart raised the shotgun to the deputy’s face and pulled the trigger. “…you’d still be alive.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapters 66-67

“There’s no logistical correlation between events,” Seth announced to his dad and Agent Burns from across the room in the penthouse suite.

“What did you find?” asked McLeary, peering over his son’s shoulder to view the crime analysis program on an external monitor.

Seth wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “A lot of sectors were destroyed but I was able to recover some of the hard drive memory.” He clicked the mouse over the program’s drop-down menu. He pointed to the screen and coughed as he moved the mouse to a graphic display of events, starting with the first robbery and several arrows linking the robbery to the murders at the Amsterdam airport.

McLeary pointed to the screen. “You’re missing half the data.”

“I said I recovered some of it, not all.”

Seth double-clicked on the first icon, initializing a series of automated events. He scrolled through a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen. “We can’t predict their next move if we don’t understand the ones before it.”

McLeary leaned closer and worked the mouse. “Adjust the temporal parameters and incident classifications.” He watched the arrows map across the screen. “These events aren’t random, they’re part of a strategic attack.” He pointed to the small U.S. map in the corner of the screen with dates, times, and events labeled at D.C. and Florida locations. “Here and here. Activities occurring at exactly the same time. A robbery in D.C. with a DEA event in Miami.”

Burns shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe it does,” Seth answered. “I took a look at the numbers you decrypted and ran the digits 315507803140 through a program I wrote to compare the sequence against standard patterns of ten-digit numbers using variable combinations until I came up with this.” He hit the ENTER key to display a grid over the Florida Keys with the number sequence superimposed as 31 55 07 / 80 31 40.

“Lat long coordinates,” said McLeary.

Seth enhanced the screen to show the exact location of the coordinates outside Key Largo. “I researched this location. There’s an abandoned undersea habitat for marine biologists. The structure was built in 1992 by the University of Miami. They shut it down when their grant ran out.”

“Are you sure?” asked McLeary.

“Positive. I checked the numbers twice. There’s nothing on record near those coordinates except sea water and the lab below.”

“Assuming we’re dealing with lat longs at all,” said Burns. “You could twist those numbers around and come up with something completely different. Or a new location altogether.”

McLeary sat in front of the laptop monitor and typed a flurry of commands on the external keyboard. He scrolled down the screen, skimming the contents of Seth’s program. “Your code’s tight. The logic is sound.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s right,” Burns continued with her dissenting opinion. “No offense, but you have to be basing this on a lot of assumptions.”

“A few,” said Seth in his own defense. “But I correlated data from the analysis I salvaged on the hard drive. People, places, events… There are undeniable patterns at work here.”

McLeary touched his palm to Seth’s cheek. “It might also explain how Abdullah stayed off the grid for so long. We’ve known for some time that Abdullah’s had ties in Miami.” His son felt exceedingly warm to the touch. The dim indoor lighting aside, Seth’s complexion looked very pale, yet blotchy. “Do you feel all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

Burns noticed Seth’s condition. The feverish hues. The goose-bump flesh on his arms. “Where have you been recently?”

Seth looked up at the ceiling and thought. “Dad’s boat. The hospital. Your apartment.”

“Where else?”

“That’s it. I’ve been with you the whole time.”

Agent Burns shook her head. “Did you ever leave my apartment on your own?”

“No.”

“Did anyone approach you while you were there?”

“No. Just a UPS guy with a package for you.”

“What package?” McLeary and Burns asked in unison.

“A big envelope. It was empty.” Seth spoke with an apologetic tone. “I wasn’t trying to snoop. I didn’t know if there might be something on my brother.”

McLeary exchanged a knowing glance with his partner. “We need to get you to the hospital.”

“Not until we find Brian.”

Burns put her hands on her head. “Oh God…”

McLeary left the room and returned with a medical supply case. He withdrew a vial of Cyprofloxin from the padded liner and filled a small syringe. He pressed the plunger to evacuate any air bubbles and jabbed the needle in Seth’s shoulder.

“What’s that for?” Seth asked hotly. The needle burned when his dad administered the injection.

“The sooner you’re treated, the better your chances.”

“Of what?”

McLeary withdrew the needle. “You may have been exposed to a weaponized anthrax strain. Now for once in your life, shut up and do what I tell you.”

Chapter 67

McLeary avoided his partner’s disapproving stare and reached inside the Charger’s trunk. He hoisted an aluminum scuba tank on his broad shoulder and carried the eighty-cubic foot cylinder to the Cigarette Lightning moored along the harbor pier, where Hilario Gonsalez and his men awaited in the darkness.

“This is suicide,” Burns argued. “We don’t know how many people we’re dealing with or how heavily they’re armed. We have no ops plan and no backup.”

McLeary delivered the scuba tank to Hilario’s men on board the boat. “You wanted more action. To be in the field with seasoned agents who get the job done. Well this is it.”

“What about Kriegel?”

“What about him?”

“We should keep him in the loop.”

“And tell him what? You’re working off a hunch from a former agent and wanted felon who recently escaped from federal custody with help from someone inside the bureau who’s got bigger connections and bigger balls than Kriegel himself?” McLeary pulled his dive vest on and slid a commando knife in the sheath mounted to his breast pocket. He gave Hilario’s crew the go ahead signal. “We’ve got two hours ’til sunrise. I suggest we make the most of it.”

“To do what? Take on Abdullah mano a mano in some kind of Rambo fantasy?”

“You made your point, Agent Burns.”

“You’re not listening. We need to think this through and weigh our options.”

“My sons are not an option I have to weigh. One is missing. The other has one foot in the grave.”

“I’m just saying… A lot of lives are at stake, including yours.”

“You think this is a bad idea. I respect your opinion. Now you can either help me or go do whatever the hell it is you do when you’re not on the job.”

“Do you honestly think we’ll find Ahmed Abdullah hiding underwater in some research habitat converted to an anthrax lab?”

“I think we’ll find answers.”

“About this case or about your missing son?”

“Both.” McLeary wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Are you going to stand there all night, or help me with this gear?”

“What about them?” Burns whispered, pointing to Hilario Gonsalez and his three-man crew working quickly to stow the gear inside the offshore racer.

“Right now they’re all we’ve got.”

“You mean outside of bureau channels.”

“I made a promise to Hilario Gonsalez, and I’m a man of my word.”

“He’s a convicted felon. He sells boats to illegal drug runners.”

“And car salesmen sell cars to gangsters. One thing’s got nothing to do with the other.”

“Don’t twist my words around, McLeary.”

“What are you afraid of? That this will blow back on your sterling bureau record and impede your chances at further advancement?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Then what are you really worried about?”

“You…” Burns shied away for a moment, surprised at how easily her emotions spilled out of her in the presence of someone she cared for.

McLeary helped Hilario’s men store the gear on deck. “Don’t worry, Sweet Pea. I can take care of myself.”