Carol met with Sherry in the lobby of a restaurant their office used for confidential meetings. When Sherry entered, she was immediately concerned by Carol’s eyes and posture. Her spine was rigid, stiff, her arms locked in a cross with a distant stare in her eyes.
Sherry put a hand on her forearm, leaned in close, “What’s wrong, hun?”
Carol whispered, her posture steadfast, “Not here.”
She pivoted on her heels, led Sherry back out the front door to a bench outside. They sat down to face the busy road as cars eeked past at a snail’s pace.
Sherry’s concerns bubbled out, “Carrie, what’s this all about? You call me in the middle of the night, tell me you need to see me first thing in the morning and–”
She cut herself short as Carol’s gaze darted suspiciously, ensured no-one nearby watched or listened in. Then, with a deft hand, she pulled two slips of paper from her jacket pocket. Sherry watched her with a critical skepticism as she lined a torn scrap atop to the full sheet.
Sherry examined them, “Looks like the medical records I got you. Why’s this one torn?” She sank into thought a moment longer, still confounded by their meaning, “Carrie, it’s just numbers to me. I don’t–”
“They are medical records, Sherry. The ones you got me. Identical records from two, separate people.”
Sherry shrugged, “So? You got a duplicate page. Sorry, I cant–”
“Sherry, you’re not listening right.” She shook the full page to emphasize, “This is from Zachary Evans. The guy we lost to Rehab last year.” She lifted the scrap, “This one is a shred of Anthony DePaul’s medical records.”
Sherry examined them both from a far, “What’re you saying? That they have similar histories?”
“Not similar Sherry. Exact. Identical!” Carol said with a firm buck of the pages in her hand. Sherry swallowed hard. Carol explained, “Something’s going on, and the only way to find out’s to get to the rehab facility he’s been in. I need to make sure he’s still in there. Otherwise, he’s on the loose with a new face and a new name, and it’s only a matter of time before he does it again.”
Sherry was dumbfounded. Such a simple set of numbers, yet with such an incredible depth given their context. She examined Carol for a moment, vaguely worried she had cracked from the pressure. The more she looked, the more she was certain of Carol’s conviction. There were definite signs of stress on Carol’s tired face, in her rigid spine and white knuckles, but she was still the same woman who’d helped her become a junior partner in the firm. She was Sherry’s closest friend, and there was a kind of pleading in her eyes now; the kind that only a friend could convey.
Sherry stared a moment longer, attempted to find a way out of helping. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be involved in this; it could damage her reputation, put the firm out of business in a scandal. But was it already too late? Moreover, could she bear to leave Carol on her own? No, she couldn’t. The firm or their reputations be damned, Carol didn’t deserve to be thrown under the bus. What was another few feet of muck at this point?
“Alright Carrie, we’ll go see Mike.”
“Oh thank you Sherry! Thank you,” She said near the verge of tears. “I can’t keep doing this alone, living in fear of a phantom like this.”
Sherry gave her a small squeeze and a pat on the back, “It’s okay, hun. You’re not alone. We’ll find out what’s going on, and get you put right.”
Carol gave a relieved exhale, wiped away a single tear that had formed under her eye, and rose with Sherry to follow her from the restaurant.
Fifteen minutes later, the two were on their way to OPD’s third precinct police station to see Mike. Though Carol had never met him, she knew him more intimately than most. Sherry was a modern day conquistador when it came to sex, Mike another notch in her belt. They both knew it. Luckily, he didn’t mind, preferring to remain friends after the initial let-down. Sherry recognized a few of his better qualities then, kept him around. Apart from their wild, bedroom antics, Carol had learned long ago that Mike was interested in helping people, seeing his position as a police officer as one of public service.
They took the few steps up to the double doors, pulled them open to step inside to the small reception area. Directly ahead in a light blue uniform, a busty blonde sat at a desk with a pencil tucked into her ear.
Sherry took point, “Hey Liz, Mike in?”
“Hey! Yeah he’s here, just head on in.”
“Thanks Liz. Don’t forget you still owe me that drink!” Sherry called as she stepped for a narrow corridor of offices to the right.
Liz gave a half-laugh, “Call me then. We’ll set it up!”
Sherry followed the hall to the last office on the left, knocked once at a door with a placard that read: “DET. MICHAEL BOONE.” A voice beckoned them into a spacious office, Mike rising to greet them.
“Hey, what’s up?” Mike asked.
He wasn’t what Carol was expecting; tall, thinly built, with a scruffy face, and dark hair. Sherry introduced them to a shake of hands. He offered them the two chairs in front of his desk as Sherry sat, launched into an explanation.
“I’m sorry to make this such short notice, but we need your help.”
Mike leaned forward over his desk with his hands folded, “This have to do with those files?” She nodded. Mike shook his head, “I knew it would go bad. Nobody starts looking into two wealthy people without something suspicious going on.”
“It might be worse than you think, Mike,” Sherry admitted gravely. “That’s why we need to talk.”
He relaxed back into his seat, “Alright, you tell me what’s going on, I’ll see what I can do. Start at the beginning and tell me everything. I can’t be going out on a half-assed limb.”
Sherry looked to Carol with a nod. She recounted everything from the where it began; the loss of Evans. She went over everything in detail, eventually produced the medical records. Boone had little reason to doubt her instincts, but all the same was disheartened.
He scratched his scruff with a full hand, “I don’t doubt where you’re headed. And if you’ve come this far, it’s clear you haven’t gotta’ clue what else to do, but I just don’t know what more help I can give you. At least not right now.”
Carol was adamant, her determination fixed, “I just need to know where Evans was taken. I’ll go to the rehab facility myself to follow-up, but I need to know where.”
“It wasn’t in the files?”
“No. And it’s unlikely it’ll turn up in any. If someone’s doctored the files, they’ll be all the more inclined to hide it.”
He inhaled, straightened in his seat with a nod, “Right. Well, that doesn’t make it easier but I do have an idea of where to start. It may take a day or so, but I’ll pull a list of all the rehab centers in a reasonable distance, fax the info to your office A-SAP. Beyond that, I can’t do much until there’s evidence beyond doubt that DePaul is Evans. Then I can submit the evidence to a judge, have an arrest warrant put out.”
Carol gave a relieved smile, “That’s all I need, really. Thank you. I really appreciate this.”
He nodded with a blink, led them to the door and opened it for them, “I’ll get it to you A-SAP.”
They said good-bye, headed back down the hall, passed Liz on their way out. They took the steps toward the street as Sherry spoke, “You’re not going alone.”
Sherry raised her hand, silenced her, “No! I’m not letting you expose yourself to whoevers hiding behind this. It’s final. I’m going with you.”
Carol breathed, “Okay.”
All through the next morning and afternoon Carol and Sherry exchanged uneasy glances. Any time a new fax came in, one of them would rush the machine only to shake their head. Chuck and Ed came and went a few times to meet with clients or other attorneys, but the bulk of the day was spent in agitated isolation. They awaited a possible end to the dizzying mystery with a bilious tension. Lunch came and went with Chinese take-out that further soured their stomachs, and Carol’s call to Kathy to relay that she wouldn’t be able to make it to their appointment. Though concerned, the latter seemed to accept the excuse of a lengthened work day.
When the fax finally came, Sherry got there first. Just before four PM a single page printed from the fax, blank save for three company names and addresses. There was nothing else.
“He must’ve wanted to keep it simple in case anyone else saw it,” Sherry said, as she handed it over to Carol.
“That’s not very reassuring.”
Carol looked the sheet over; one of the addresses was in Masseville, on the outskirts of Oakton. The next in a rural area to the North, near the state penitentiary, and the last roughly an hour further Northeast.
“How d’you want to do this?” Sherry asked.
Carol thought for a moment, checked the clock on the wall, “We need a full day for this. It’s already too late to start today. We’ll head to Masseville first thing tomorrow, then north, then jump on the highway for the last one.”
“If we don’t get lucky right away anyhow.”
“Somehow I’m doubting that. I have the feeling that anything we’ll find will be as far away from here as possible. But I think we need one more thing before we can do this.”
“Something from Mike?”
She shook her head, “No, an excuse to look at their files. If we don’t find Evans right away, or he’s not where he should be, there’ll be a reason for it; some kind of excuse in files or something. We need to dig up something we can use just in case.”
“We’ll go in under the Investigative Act,” Sherry replied. “The same one we’ve used to get everything else.”
Carol’s brow rose, “We can do that?”
Sherry chuckled, smiled, “Who’s ballsy enough to argue with a pair of lawyers?”
That evening, when Carol returned home, she let Buddy outside and followed him out to stare up at the sky. The pinkish-orange glow of the setting, spring-time sun gave way to an ominous blue-gray that dissolved into the blackness of space further above. Very few stars were visible, but Carol knew they were there; an ever-present, cosmic masterpiece painted billions of years ago, and hidden by man’s hubris. There and then, she decided to one day leave the city someday, take Buddy and head for rural land– even if it was as short a migration as Masseville, the stars would be more visible than now.
She returned to the house with Buddy, climbed the stairs to her bedroom to dig through the closet as she mentally planned for the next morning. Sherry would arrive around eight with her cousin’s truck, her own car in the shop. They would immediately set out for the rehab center in Masseville, only twenty or so minutes from the house. If they found anything, they would go from there. If not, they’d continue until the did. It was going to be a long day.
She removed a heavy, gray safe from the closet, set it in front of the door, and unlocked it with a small, gold key. It lifted open to reveal stacks of papers hid a snap-locked holster and pistol.
She glanced at Buddy, “I’d rather have you with me tomorrow, but this’ll have to do.” He ignored her, too enamored with licking his nethers. She rolled her eyes, “Men.”
It had been years since she’d carried the black, steel pistol. Its very presence whisked her back to a time of terror and fear, before Buddy, before Kathy, or even before she’d mustered the courage to speak up. The pistol was relic, one she’d grown to hate relying on. Before, she’d felt she had no choice, otherwise powerless against being stolen from the darkened streets, thrown into a van to be mercilessly drugged, raped, tortured. The thought of repressed horrors urged bile rose up her throat.
She powered through by pulling the pistol from the holster, aiming it a nearby wall to check the sights. It felt different this time, helped the bile to subside. She was no longer afraid, now left with more options than to cower, whimper. In truth, she’d always had more options, she merely hadn’t seen them at the time.
With his last bits of wisdom, her father had taught her not to let her captor keep his power over her. If she allowed it, he won. Her father was seldom a noble man, merely a laborer for the highest bidder that broke his back to feed his family. Even so, long after his death, his final piece of righteousness ever resonated; “When what you do is right, but goes against everyone else, never give up. Always go down fighting.”
The pistol was no longer a shield– it wasn’t even a weapon– it was now a metaphor come to life. She was more than prepared to go down fighting. Evans, or DePaul if that was his name now, wasn’t going to like her sniffing around. She knew it, suspected Sherry knew it too. If Evans caught her, there would likely be a bloody end. He was guilty of far worse than the charges against him, and she was prepared to act as his executioner if he chose not to come quietly.
Sherry arrived at 8 AM sharp. Carol was ready. She headed out to the massive 4×4, climbed up to the passenger’s seat with a subtle shift of her holstered pistol beneath her jacket. Sherry missed the motion, shifted the truck into gear to drive forward.
It was twenty minutes before they made it across town in the morning traffic, another ten before they hit Masseville’s confusing crisscross of country roads. The rehabilitation center was tucked away in some distant, northern corner of the woods, no doubt hidden from the general public. The public outrage would have been unassailable if they’d been alerted to a nearby minimum security center.
An eventual left turn found them staring them down a old, wooded road. The center ahead to the right was well kept. Expensive landscaping and large hedges covered the front windows. The small, gravel parking lot that wound from the front of the building around its side and back was luxuriously buffered by trees that encircled an obvious, wrought-iron gated courtyard.
Sherry found a space near the front, turned off the engine, “You sure you’re ready for this?”
Carol sensed she had asked more for herself. This was the point of no return, and she needed a last minute reassurance.
“Sherry, you don’t have to do this with me. You’ve already done more than I–”
Sherry cut her off, “This isn’t just about you anymore. It’s about eight lives– eight families– destroyed by a monster that might still walk free. We tried it the fair way once. The system we put so much faith in failed us, failed those families. We passed the point of no involvement a long time ago, and we both know there’s only one alternative if our suspicions are correct.” She scanned the building with a look, “Way I see it, it’s two against one. If the Evans was stupid enough to get caught once, he’ll be stupid enough to do it again. You know it, I know it. Don’t try to talk me out of anything anymore. I’m here. Understand?”
Carol saw a fierce determination in Sherry’s eyes that reinvigorated her. She nodded, exited the truck for the front door. A couple of cars came or went during their walk, a man in a blue sedan sat with a phone to his ear, his mind and eyes focused elsewhere. A woman in a white uniform exhaled smoke into the air at the building’s far-edge, exhaustion on her face as she flicked ash into the air. They passed her for the small entry enclosure that contained the reception desk.
A dark haired, older woman’s fingers were preoccupied with a computer’s keyboard. She looked up, greeted them formally, “Can I help you?”
Sherry took the lead, “We’re with Mordin and Henderson, doing some follow up on a former client, Zachary Evans. We were told he may be in a rehabilitation program here.”
She typed the name, “Nope, sorry. No Evans here. At least not in the last six years, and that was a Paul Evans.”
“My mistake, forgive us,” Sherry replied as she turned for the door.
Carol followed her back out. The woman in the uniform stepped past while the man in the car seemed to be arguing heatedly about something.
Carol rolled her eyes, climbed into the truck, “What now?”
Sherry buckled her belt, “Head to the next one.”
“You don’t think she’s lying?”
“Poor woman doesn’t get paid enough to lie to lawyers,” she said simply. “It’s a good thing too, otherwise she may’ve started asking questions I can’t answer.”
“Like what?” Carol asked as Sherry triggered the ignition.
“Like why a lawyer wouldn’t know where their client was.”
Carol winced; they were out of their element, in over their heads. The truck rolled back onto the road, gather speed to gallop along cracked asphalt long ago left to time’s effects.
Carol suddenly voiced a thought, “I think that was a bad idea anyway.”
“Why’s that?” Sherry asked, focused on the road.
Carol scanned the empty cornfields that passed, “It was a small place, too close to town. Evans was rich, well known in a lot of circles. He was a Hollywood producer type, millions of people knew his name. I doubt they’d have put him so close to the general population. He’s pretty much American royalty, at least in as much as we have it. I’ve no doubt the furthest place from here’s where we’ll find him. It’s isolated, with room to be upscale– like a country club with minimum security. Not to mention filled with other rich bastards.”
“It’s still worth checking into the next one,” Sherry replied. “If only to confirm he isn’t there.”
Carol agreed, rode the next half hour in silence along a dull drive filled will empty fields or sparse tree lines. There were no other cars until they began to approach the center and State Penitentiary. Then, sheriff’s cruisers and large, white vans patrolled the area, emblazoned with state seals and the telltale, Sheriff’s star. At the thought of the risk they were taking, Carol visibly flinched at every officer that drove by.