Rehab: Part 6

9.

As the penitentiary drew nearer, the high brick walls and guard towers became visible in the distance. They towered forty-feet high within the walls and fences that separated the road from the main, brick building. It was a wholly depressing sight, unkempt and dry with weathered brick barely visible over rusty razor-wire that topped the walls. The windows were visibly reinforced with thick steel bars, the patrolling guards miniatures atop the towers with scoped rifles. The usual, circular, deer crossing signs turned to hard-angled rectangles with the ominous warning; “HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPED INMATES.” The signs appeared miles before the prison, became a mainstay every few hundred yards.

Sherry steered left onto a dusty, dirt road. Ahead, the rehab center was tucked away behind thick foliage that buffered its grounds. It was hardly the picturesque image of the last; the building dilapidated, abandoned years ago. A car pulled from its gravel lot, passed them as they maneuvered into the lot with a crunch beneath the truck’s heavy tires.

The interior and receptionist were a perfect match to the center’s aged and worn grounds. Carol had only just begun to wonder at its state when Sherry started her spiel. The receptionist breathed an exhausted sigh, and began to type. Carol winced with pity; the poor woman had clearly been forced here, shaved down to a pathetic caricature from years of living with looming dread. Her sallow face was pale, her eyes dark, purple from years of emotional baggage and strife.

When the database search came back empty, they left without delay. They were as ready to be rid of the building as the woman would have liked to be. A desperate aura of depression permeated the air, stank with the demoralized scent of a place and people intentionally left in shambles. The place had been forgotten, abandoned by the higher-ups in the state. The patients were likely all recovering addicts, recidivists one a dose away from relapse or vagrancy. As close to the prison as it was, its funding was probably slashed, diverted for other ventures there.

Carol considered the world around her, wondered if the picture formed in her head from Evans’ possible identity change was really a growing pandemic. It clawed at her mind while she returned to the truck, shrugged off a remark from Sherry about the center’s shabbiness: They needed to stay focused, and it was no secret some things were bad, the two were simply forced to examine them through a microscope in the midst of their search. The very necessity of the search should have prepared them for anything, especially heart-wrenching reality.

The truck returned to the main-road, headed away from the prison to a distant, highway entrance, then North toward the final rehab center. It was an hour of tense silence, both of them too uncomfortable to speak. The silence was infected with a knowing thought between them. They were both certain of the damage that might be done to their reputations no matter what way things panned out. Moreover, if Chuck or Ed got wind of it their crusade, they’d likely lose their jobs, livelihoods, and any chances for new work. There was very little to be found in the private sector these days, especially for young attorneys with black marks against them. With such risks on their minds, the stress that infected the truck’s cab could only grow.

The truck cruised on through empty fields for near an hour before the scenery began to shift to pastured, grazing land. The still-dry and dead brown of early spring was infected with spores of green grass and freshly budded trees. The change of hues helped to keep their wits intact. Further north, then eastward, the farms trickled away. The land became spackled here and there with massive, mansion-homes. A dramatic shift in the landscape left them uneasy; it had happened too fast, and lasted too long, as if they were traversing through an immense golf course.

Carol looked around suspiciously, “We must be getting close.”

Sherry agreed, “Yeah. Don’t know about you, but this screams rich asshole to me.”

Carol squinted at a hill in the distance, pointed to it, “There. That’s gotta’ be it.”

The hill was roughly a hundred feet higher than the rest of the outlying areas. Atop it sat the center, as big as a hospital and with a Victorian-era architecture. Massive white columns rose at its entrance, blended with the expansive grounds of costly landscaping like a southern plantation. Even in the early spring, the place was unnaturally well-groomed.

Carol looked to Sherry, who shook her head in disgust, “More proof that enough money can get you anything.” Her next words repulsed her, “Even a god damned hospital.”

They merged right, onto freshly tarred asphalt that led up the hill to the entrance, curved back down to meet the main road again. The truck crept along it, sandwiched to the door by tall, freshly cut hedges strangely green against the dreary sky. The truck came to a stop outside the door, Sherry’s hands autonomous as she put it in gear, climbed out. Carol followed with a subtle unbutton of the holster at her side. She met Sherry at the steps, paused to survey the hospital-sized building in its entirety. The stone steps led upward between the large, Victorian columns, leveled off at a heavy wooden door.

Carol glanced at Sherry, “If he’s anywhere, my guess is here.”

“I can only imagine the ego-stroking that goes on in here– probably how Evans made it out.”

“How’d he leave’s the question,” Carol replied.

Sherry breathed to steady her nerves, “And with a new face at that.”

Carol started up the steps, “What the hell’s the point to putting these guys away if they can just get out again?”
Sherry shrugged, followed Carol to the door and inside. A cool breeze followed them onto marble floors of a lobby. The heavy door shut with a loud echo of metal and wood like a castle’s entryway. A long desk was enclosed in tempered glass ahead, a blonde, middle-aged receptionist there wiling away her time at a keyboard with fake-tipped nails.

Her eyes rose, caked with make-up and surprised by their appearance, “Uh, hello. Can I help you?”

“We’d like to speak with whoever’s in charge,” Sherry said expertly. “We’re looking into a former client’s whereabouts, and were told the man in charge could answer some questions.”

She perked up, “Oh! You’re looking for Dr. Babcock. I’ll send for him.”

Sherry gave a crooked smile to Carol, led her to a bench across the room, and shielded her words in a lean, “I don’t know how long this ruse will last. Decide what you wanna know now.”

A door on the right side of the lobby opened on a man in his late-fifties with a comb-over and a lab coat. He had a dozen or so pens in a pocket protector at his left breast that set off the thick, black glasses over his eyes. They stood as he entered, stepped over to introduce themselves.

“So what can I do for you miss Hunter?” He asked with a plastic smile.

“Perhaps we could speak somewhere more private?” She responded.

The doctor’s face drew delight, “Of course. This way please.”

He beckoned them to the door he’d entered from, unlocked it with a golden key. He held it open, followed them in as it swung closed, latched with an electronic lock. The hallway beyond was excessively grand; highly polished granite floors were offset by gold fixtures and bright, red-oak paneled walls. Babcock made for the third door at the left, unlocked it with another key to usher them in. The door shut, locked behind them. The office matched the hallway with a large, mahogany desk that stole one third of its center between three chairs.

Babcock offered them a seat, took his behind the desk as he produced a cigarette, held it like a Frenchmen to puff deep. He exhaled, tamped ash into a tray, “Now, what can I do for you ladies?”

Carol looked to Sherry, steeled her courage and cleared her throat, “We’re here to inquire about a former patient. It seems he may not have fulfilled his full rehabilitation sentence.”

The Doctor’s brow formed scrutiny, “Miss Switzer, I assure you every one of my patients that enters our program here completes their full terms without exception. More to the point, I’m afraid I can’t relay any specific information as it violates our Medical non-disclosure agreements.”

Sherry interjected, “Unless the NDA’s interfere with the new Investigative Act. Then, the law takes precedent.”

“Are you policemen?” Babcock asked curiously.

“Do we need to be?” Carol asked, mildly irritated.

“Ah, so you aren’t then.”

Sherry countered, “No Doctor Babcock, we’re not. But we are from Mordin and Henderson, attorneys at law, here to ensure a patient and convicted criminal is still serving his sentence.”

Babcock grumbled, annoyed, “Lawyers.” He took a breath, stiffened one half of his face up, “Well ladies, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to present a warrant or leave until you return with one. Do you have a warrant?”

“We don’t need one,” Sherry assured him.

“As I thought,” He rose from his desk. “I’m afraid you’ll have to–”

“Doctor Babcock, I’m afraid you’re not understanding me,” Sherry said firmly as she rose, silenced him. “The nature of your work here may be of questionable ethics. We know something has happened to one of your patients, and that he is no longer serving his rehabilitation term. He has returned to society against court orders and I’m certain you know that makes you liable.”

Babcock’s face sank. Carol snarled, rose beside Sherry, “You’ve been caught. If you don’t comply, you’ll be charged with aiding and abetting a known felon and obstruction of justice. And I can personally assure you, you’ll see the full extent of the law in these matters.”

Babcock was silent for a moment, then swallowed hard. He matched eyes with Carol, a minor arrogance on his tongue, “Let me see if I understand you right; You barge in here, demand I illegally release personal information, then threaten me when I don’t?”

Sherry snapped back, “Under the new privacy act, you are obligated to remit any and all information on the patient in question– a convicted criminal, or else risk a twenty year sentence for the aforementioned charges.”

Babcock sighed, his shoulder’s slumped, “What is the patient’s name?”

Sherry was stunned at the lightning reversal. Carol wasn’t, instead on edge from his evasiveness, “Zachary Evans.”

His eyebrow rose knowingly, “Evans huh? Yeah, I remember the man. Movie producer with an itch for teenage girls.” Carol’s eye twitched, her stomach rolled. He stepped around the desk, “Very well, come with me.”

They followed him from the office, cautious but curious. He led them back to the lobby, across it to a door on the opposite side. He unlocked it as he explained, “You must see what we do here before you can understand what is that has happened. I would ask that you reserve judgment until afterward.”

He led them into a room with billiard and foosball tables. Computers and video game consoles lined walls among bookcases of DVDs, BluRays, and VHS tapes. Large screen televisions hung at shoulder height all around the room across from chairs, tables, and sofas. A few men and women partook in the various activities there, completely indifferent to the trio’s appearance. Each of them were clad in white, pajama-like clothing, and murmered quietly to one another as if in a library.

Babcock led the through the room as he spoke, “This is our recreation room, where our patients can enjoy any down time they might have between treatments and therapy sessions. At this facility we believe in equal parts cohabitation, treatment, and relaxation. We feel it is best to keep them integrated in a society while they recover in order to simulate the natural order of society.”

He led them into another hallway, passed a few rooms filled with groups of people in circles of chairs. Babcock directed their attention right, to a courtyard in the building’s center visible through floor to ceiling windows. French doors could be discerned around the courtyard, no doubt barred by the same electronic locks as the others.

He explained, “These are our group therapy rooms. The courtyard is mainly for relaxation or smoking. It’s important that our patients feel comfortable enough to relax during and after their treatments, as their stories tend to stir their emotions. In order to properly heal their various mental disorders, we require that they remain as complacent and content as possible given the circumstances.”

Carol sneered at the thought; if any of these people were like Evans, none of them deserved serenity or peace, they deserved death. Beside her, Sherry sensed an omen in the tour, as if the doctor was deliberately putting on an air so they might let their guard down. It wasn’t working. Sherry rubbernecked her way around, alert for an ambush. Carol kept her arms down, ready to draw her hidden pistol if Babcock breathed wrong.

They rounded a corner to the right, entered a narrower hallway with rooms every few feet. They made their way through, past patient rooms. Carol’s paranoia began to seep in; if the Babcock knew he’d been discovered, why the tour? What was he trying to prove? How could this possibly help him? Did he really believe this would keep him from the repercussions of letting an inmate go?

Something was wrong.

They made a right into another hallway. To their left was a large room that looked down on circular glass. “This is our medical wing. As you may have noticed, we are rather isolated so we require a fully-staffed medical team. This is the observation area for any emergency surgeries that may have to take place.”

Something sprinted through Carol’s mind, an epiphany that readied to blossom. It couldn’t yet, as though barred by the eerie tour yet to end. The thought lingered on the verge of realization, tickled her senses as they continued.

“These are our doctor’s offices, equipped much like an ICU though rarely used as such. It may also be used as a recovery room for any surgical patients.”

Recovery? Recovery from what? Why would anyone in a rehab center require surgery or recovery, let alone one so lush? Was there fighting like in prisons? No that couldn’t be it, there was no reason for it. These were society’s “elite,” the aristocracy. They prided themselves on sophistication, not barbarianism.

“And this is our rehabilitative therapy room,” Babcock said as he stopped at an open door.

It was bare save a metal table in its center. Atop it was a strange machine with a component to fit a human head. It looked like an optometrist’s ocular x-ray machine might, with viewfinders in the head component. Carol stared at the machine as Babcok droned on and the epiphany began to bubble, froth. It readied to spill from the depths of her mind with sweat that beaded on her forehead and temples.

Babock spoke formally, “This machine helps us identify which areas of the brain cause the patients’ addictions, neuroses, or negative behaviors, and allows us to focus chemical treatments on those affected areas.”

Carol’s head began to spin. It dizzied her, upturned her stomach. She swayed, fell forward, clutched at what she could. She slipped to her knees as something gave way beneath a palm. The episode honed into vertigo as her hand hand rose to meet her eyes, Babcock’s badge in it with black, printed letters that read, “Dr. Henry Babcock, M.D, Plastic Surgeon.”

Time ground to a crawl. She stared at the name as a fire ignited within her, and the epiphany spilled out. As if in slow motion, she saw Babcock kneel before her, felt Sherry’s hand on her shoulder. A penlight lifted from his breast pocket, clicked on. It rose. The images of DePaul and Evans played through her mind again, superimposed upon one another, then over the badge until only the words “Plastic Surgeon” were visible.

It hit her like a freight train; whatever Evans had done to become DePaul, Babcock knew about it. He’d helped him to change his appearance, created DePaul from Evans’ face. The words burned in her mind as her chin was lifted for the penlight. Her gaze swayed, forced sideways from a hand onto the device ahead. As the penlight’s beam entered from the right of her vision. Time resumed its normal speed. She lunged, tackled the doctor. He stumbled, smacked his head on the metal table.

Sherry rushed in, “Carrie! What the hell?”

Carol didn’t listen. The three were now alone in the room, isolated. She bounded backward, locked the door. Babcock lay on the floor, dazed. She pounced atop him, knee in his chest, and smacked his face to bring him ’round.

“What’d you do to him? Where is he!” She screamed with a grip on his lapels.

“Carrie, what the hell’re–”

“He knows Sherry!” She shouted with a sidelong snap. She refocused on Babcock, her face beet-red and knuckles white, “I know you know! What happened to Evans? I know you did it. You’re a plastic surgeon– the only one that could’ve changed his appearance. Tell me! How could you let that monster back into the world!”

Babcock denied it with weak breaths, “Stupid… bitch, you have no idea… what you’re talking about. And you’ll never getting out of here–”

Carol’s pistol slipped form her side, pressed against his temple. Sherry was frozen as Carol shouted with sideways jabs, “I should pull the trigger right now! I should avenge those girls myself– everyone who’s suffered from the ones you’ve let go! You fucking monster!” Babcock shuddered from the cold steel, silent, terrified. Carol screamed, “Tell me what you did!”

Petrified, horrified, and disgusted all at once, Sherry took in the scene took in the scene. Carol seemed crazed, but she made sense. His guilt was obvious, but the bastard had a gun against his head and still refused to admit it.

“What’s it do Babcock?” She motioned to the machine with her head, “What’s it really do!” He glanced between Carol and Sherry. The gun jabbed his temple again, “Tell me!”

He struggled to speak against Carol’s weight, “It’s…It’s a memory device.”

“What kind of memory device Babcock?” She barked.

“I-I can’t…”

“Tell me, now!”

“Carrie, he can’t breathe. Ease off.” Carol’s eyes were throwing knives that aimed for Sherry. She barked logic at her, “He’s not going anywhere, but security’ll be here soon.”

Carol stood, the gun leveled on Babcock’s forehead. He sat up, gasped and coughed for air, “You… You don’t understand. These aren’t… the same people anymore.”

“What the hell’re you talking about?” She barked, her arms locked outward, grip firm.

“Wh-when they come here, we’re given directives. If some of them are… especially valuable, we rehabilitate them, return them to society.”

Sherry’s eyes were wild, “What the hell d’you mean valuablet?”

“I just do as I’m told. S-Some of these people… they’re considered valuable by certain… interested parties.Their the smartest, the brightest– the ones most inclined to harbor extraordinary qualities. Evans was one of them. Evans was one.”

“What the hell are you babbling about?” Carol barked with a thrust of the gun.

The pistol followed him up as he inched back to his feet, “The device… it erases a subject’s mind– implants a new personality, new memories. It makes them a different person! It brings out the… extraordinary qualities in them.” Carol’s arms slacked a little as she listened, dumbfounded. Babcock explained, braced himself against the table to breathe, “Evans… had a unique genetic configuration. It… made his mind excessively mathematical, organized. It was this quality that made him so successful. It’s why he became DePaul.” He swallowed the last of his pants, regained his breath. He became enamored with his own work, passionate even, “It was anticipated Evans would be successful at anything mathematical. We were right. Anthony DePaul is a natural mathematician. He uses that skill to run and grow a business that contributes to the economy, to Humanity. ”

Sherry was once more speechless, but Carol’s arms re-locked, “Who’s doing this?” He shook his head, “I don’t know.” Carol thrust the gun forward. He stamped a foot, “I don’t know damn it! All I know’s that they send us packages for each new patient– evaluations that tell us what to implant, files to do it, via a courier. I suspect they make money off it somehow, but I don’t know how. I don’t really care. I just do what they tell me to!”

Carol sneered with a flare of her nostrils, lowered the gun, “It needs to stop.”

He swallowed hard, shook his head, “You don’t understand. It can’t be stopped. Ours is only one of hundreds of facilities across the world. In most cases the subjects are the most heinous criminals– but they go on to do good. You can’t just stop that. You shouldn’t. It’s… unethical.”

Carol fumed, “Don’t you lecture me on ethics you sonuvabitch!”

Sherry was calmer, but confused, “Do they know?”

“What?” Babcock asked.

Carol shot her a look, she reiterated, “Do they know what’s happened to them?”

Babcock hesitated, then shook his head slowly, “No, their whole lives are implanted through the machine, parts are backed up by falsified files, documents. When Anthony DePaul was born in this room, Zachary Evans died. Evans was a pompous, arrogant, child molesting prick.” Babcock snarled at the thought, then inexplicably softened, “ But Anthony DePaul… he’s a kind-hearted man, donates millions to various charities, and helps to make the world a better place. They’re two entirely different people. It’s part of the reason for the reconstructive surgery; we make their fiercer features more gentle.”

“So… they don’t know what’s going to happen to them, then?” Sherry asked.

“Should they?” He asked earnestly. They eyed him. He countered, confounded, “They’re terrible criminals– a festering sore on Humanity and society. Why would it matter? Why should they know? Did their victim’s know what was about to happen to them?”

There was a long silence. Neither of the women seemed willing to admit Babcock’s point. In truth, they both knew it, agreed in part.

Babcock sensed this, “We’re on the same side. My methods merely differ, and in some cases, are the next link in the chain after yours.”

Carol sighed, lowered the gun. She was lost. She could walk away now, be done with it. Evans was gone from the world, her job was finished, but something more kept her in place. She flipped the safety back on the pistol, slipped it into the holster.

She watched Babcock visibly relax, “Can they revert? Become who they were again?”

“Never. It’s impossible. Everything of who and what they were is erased, rewritten.”

Sherry tasted bile from the thought, “It’s still not right.”

“Right and wrong is white and black, Miss Hunter,” Babcock replied. “Morality… reality, is gray. And there are many shades of it.”

Carol sighed, shook her head, her eyes on the floor, “He’s right. There’s nothing we can do about this… not this. But I still can’t let DePaul go without knowing who– and what– he is.”

Babcock eyed her as fists began to pound on the door. The security team had arrived.

“Wave them off,” she instructed. “Wave them off, and you stay anonymous. Your name never comes up when this blows open.”

He eyed her for deception, found none. He stepped to the door with a nod, opened it as he rubbed the back of his head, “It’s alright boys, really. A few missteps, and one conked noggin, but everything’s fine.”

One of the men at the forefront of the group eyed Carol, “You sure you’re okay, Doc?”

“Yes, yes, everything’s fine here,” he said dismissively.

He waved off the confused security team, ushered the women out. The group turned for the main lobby, as Carol steered the doctor after them. The team exited the lobby ahead. Sherry stopped at a door marked, “Archives” between Babcock’s office and the lobby-door. She opened it, let Carol and Babcock pass through first. The door shut. Babcock turned to Carol.

She motioned to a computer between two sets of file cabinets, “I want copies of every patient record you have– and I want them now.”

The doctor sighed, moved to the computer. He produced a USB stick from a box beside it, jammed it into a port, and began a file-transfer, “I don’t know what you’re expecting, Miss Switzer.”

“You don’t need to,” Carol countered. “All you need to know’s that you’re off the hook.”

The transfer prompt morphed into a progress bar that galloped forward. Babcock watched it, “I assume you intend to inform each of theses patients of their status. I have to ask though; what good will that do?”

She wasn’t sure yet; “Just give me what I want, and keep doing what you do. You do serve a purpose. So do what you do, but with one, minor adjustment– for your own sake.” He handed over the USB drive. She slipped it into her pocket, met his eyes, “You tell them first. Tell them what the price is. That it’s their penance. Tell them. Watch their horror and realization emerge. Then be their executioner. Switch on your machine and be done with it. They deserve to know, and you deserve the curse.”

“How do you know I’ll comply?”

“Because we both know it’s the right thing to do. And regardless of your actions, I know you believe in doing what’s right.”

Babcock was silent, thoughtful for a moment, then “What will you do?”

“I’m going to keep an eye on your patients, and ensure they never revert.”

Sherry caught Carol’s steely determination, for moment thought she’d lost her mind. Then, she turned away, left Babcock to consider all that had occurred. She followed Carol out to the lobby, climbed into the truck, and began the long drive home. It was silent, Sherry still in shock. There was a lot to be done, and very few alternatives. Carol figured she’d be hunted by Babcock’s handlers, but with Buddy at home and her pistol nearby, she feared nothing.

As they pulled up to Carol’s house in the darkness, Sherry shut the truck off, looked sideways, “What’s our next move?” Carol eyed her curiously. Sherry was determined, “I’ve already said it; I’m here, so what’s our next move?”

Carol considered it for a moment, then sighed, “A drink.”

They headed inside to tend to Buddy. Beneath the stars on the back porch, the consumed copious amounts of liquor to keep their minds from the day. A few hours of drunken banter saw them pass out in the living room. Carol was kicked back in her recliner, Buddy’s over-sized body in her lap. Sherry slumped over on the couch, and like Carol, slept the sleep of the righteous.

Rehab: Part 5

7.

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.”

“Sher–”

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?”

8.

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.

Rehab: Part 4

6.

The next day at work, just before lunch, Sherry handed Carol a single, manila file folder. She, Ed, and Chuck had a luncheon to attend with a District Attorney’s assistant, Carol relegated to manning the fort for the rest of the day. Sherry instantly put a finger to her lips, mouthed the words “after we’re gone.”

As soon as the office-door closed, Carol threw open the folder to several packets of papers, some stapled, others paper-clipped together. The top page had an FBI seal, an “Investigate Act” request number to one side, and a name beneath it; Anthony Phillip DePaul.

Carol’s eyes widened. Sherry had somehow managed to make a request through the FBI on the Investigative Act– the same one used to dredge up attorney-client meetings in public places– and not only had it approved, but received it in less than a day. There were detailed histories on everything about DePaul; medical records, grade transcripts, licenses, registrations, and virtually everything else Carol could imagine.

She instantly suspected Sherry’s old boyfriend, Mike; a Detective at OPD and a rather well-connected sleuth. It was no doubt he’d immediately requested and received everything available to DePaul from the FBI, probably as a personal favor to Sherry. She had no misconceptions that her own record had likely been reviewed. It was now a rather standard, if not corrupt, practice for trial lawyers to obtain opponent records from people they knew on the inside. Most did so with the hope of building a better trial, learning their adversaries tactics and devising strategies to counter them personally.

She thumbed through the first packet of papers, DePaul’s medical records, then set it aside for a moment to focus on a series of business contracts. Oakton’s city seal was emblazoned in gold and tamped into the pages from a notary, identified in the contracts. Next, were a series of contracts signed over from Allen to DePaul construction. Evidently the latter had made at least one right move; in acquiring Allen, he’d also acquired thirty-eight million dollars worth of building deals it had taken on just before it began to fail. No doubt they were guaranteed to him as per the company’s buy-out. Though it was useless, it nourished her hopes for evidence of foul-play, anything that would explain the intensity of her disgust for the man.

She set the second stack atop the first, revealed high-school and college transcripts beneath it. Evidently DePaul had attended, then dropped out of, Oakton State University across town. Oddly enough, he had no previous employment history. The thirty-five year old man had probably gone from being paid under the table to head of his own company. The image of a multimillion dollar construction guru came later, however it had formed.

She cast aside the third stack of papers, flipped through what had been paper-clipped together. It amounted to roughly thirty pages of printed text documents and digital scans of business news articles. She’d seen all of the latter before, the former largely DMV and credit-card records.

That was it; all there was to the file. She sank in her chair, more dejected than ever. A sickly sense of loss and shame coursed through her. She’d invaded this man’s privacy, questioned his integrity, all for selfish reasons, and there was nothing here. She could go through his medical records with a fine tooth comb, but what was the point? What was she even looking for? How could doctor’s visits, or childhood ailments keep her from falling into debilitating fits each time she saw the man?

She sat silent for a long moment, her eyes fixed past the disheveled desk. Her short stare broke with a sigh, her body and mind drained. The fax suddenly rang, startled her as it began to print out several pages.

She shook her head, her nerves frayed, “Kathy’s right. I’m just projecting.”

The fax machine printed ceaselessly. Pages spilled off the table, onto the floor. Carol rolled her eyes, pushed herself up to collect them, then shuffled them into a stack. The fax machine ceased and the room quieted once more. She set the pages aside to re-fill the fax’s paper, completed the menial task only to return with the pages to her desk, engage in another bout of tedium as she re-arranged the skewed pages into order.

Before she could sit, the office phone rang. She began the usual, formal greeting but Sherry cut her off midway through, “Did a fax just come in?”

“Yeah, easily thirty-to-forty pages thick. What the hell’s in it?”

“Check the cover page.”

She sifted for the last page printed, “To Sherry; Hope this helps. Your frie-”

“That’s all I needed,” Sherry said. “It’s for you– Evans’ file. I hoped it would come in earlier, but maybe it’ll help. I gotta go hun, I’m supposed to be in the bathroom. Let me know if you find anything.”

The phone cut out. Carol set it back on its receiver, slowly retook her seat. She began to thumb through familiar pages. She’d seen Evans’ file during his trial, had committed much of it to memory for the sake of a proper prosecution. How could this help? What more could Sherry have hoped to gain from the fax? How were stacks of papers going to help her get over an illness? What she needed was to look in the bastard’s eyes through the bars of a cell, or from behind transparent plexiglass, stare him down until his heart exploded. She wanted his obituary, not his biography.

An inexplicable rage built within her. For a moment she thought she might scream. She closed her eyes to breathe deep, did her best to calm herself. She was rarely ever so quick to anger, and in its wake, shame tingled in her chest. Her shoulders sank with adrenaline that waned.

She shoved both dossiers into her briefcase, resolved to leave any further investigation until after work. Something so heavy, combined with being cooped up in the office wouldn’t be healthy no matter the eventual outcome. It was several hours before she’d settled on the couch at home, flipped on the television for noise, then retrieved the dossiers.

Buddy snoozed on the couch’s far-end, his nose whistling from atop the dopey look of sleep on his muzzle. His feet occasionally bucked here and there, no doubt from a dream of chasing tails and cars. Carol leaned the briefcase against the sofa’s bottom, laid the folders open on either side of her. She drew from the right; Evans’ files. The police reports listed priors and current charges beneath the smug sneer that haunted her. His cold, brown eyes were like black holes against the fiery star-light of his orange, prison jumpsuit. A curdle of bile burst in her stomach at his face.

She read over the information without taking it in; Name; Zachary Evans, DOB; August 30th, 1985. Sex, Male. Occupation; head of Three Star Entertainment. It was all old news to her, even the medical documents; blood type B negative, height; six-three, weight; 230lbs.

She’d seen it for the months preceding the trial, then months longer during it. The next pages were boiler-plate doctor’s forms signed by the patient, an E.R. slip from when Evans had broken his arm ten or more years ago on a ski-trip in Colorado, and photocopied x-rays of pins in his arm.

It was all an exercise in review, completely useless for her aims. She wanted to find out where Evans was, go there and face him. She needed to know why DePaul afflicted her as he did, that for certain the two men weren’t the same person. She knew she should drop it, go no further, but her concerns for her own health made her reckless, impulsive.

She set the papers down, rose for the bathroom and lingered before the mirror for a moment. Her eyes were haggard, baggy. Purple, sleepless circles had formed above more wrinkles than usual. She looked tired enough to sleep away a weekend, felt it too. She needed rest, tranquility, but couldn’t seem to find it. A deep well of uneasiness had been broached within her, a pump of concerns and fears installed with an automated trigger that only flood her with stress. The nagging threat of another episode merely kept her awaiting it to come, her mind and body skiddish, prepared to be ravaged.

She exhaled a long, tense breath, turned off the tap to dry her hands. The slow walk back to the living room ended with a sideways crane of her neck as she groaned.

“Damn it, Buddy!”

The hound had spread out in his sleep during her absence, managed to crumple a packet of papers. He’d even dug in a pair of nails for good measure She hurried forward. Her feet echoed, startled Buddy awake. Shredded paper signaled the sundering of the packet.

Shit!

She rushed the couch, threw the last of the papers off to save them. He looked around, confused. She groaned obscenities, caused Buddy to hide his head in a corner of the couch. She swept the last of the papers to the furthest end of the couch while Buddy whimpered in his hovel.

“It’s okay, pup,” she sighed with a pat on the head. He whimpered again as she gently lifted his back paws to retrieve the scraps of paper, set them on the floor with the others and lift the stack all at once.

A torn section of DePaul’s medical records caught her eye. It sat atop Evans’, overlaid almost perfectly. Her vision narrowed as if another episode were about about to overtake her. Instead, her eyes focused. The bottom page read out; Name; Zachary Evans, DOB; August 30th, 1985. Sex, Male. Occupation; head of Three Star Entertainment. Then, replaced by DePaul’s torn scrap; blood type B negative, height; six-three, weight; 230lbs.

There could be no doubt, the two were identical.

What the hell?

She stared at the pages; maybe her mind was playing a trick on her. A double, then a triple take confirmed it. Maybe she’d shuffled the papers, gotten two copies– but no, she knew she hadn’t. One had been given to her by Sherry, the other faxed by Mike.

There was no disputing it now. More questions, millions entwined with a thousand new fears and concerns, but it was undeniable; Anthony DePaul was Zachary Evans.

Her heart ran hurdles. Her mind filled with images of the two, tried fit the pieces of the puzzle together: It couldn’t be Evans, he was still carrying in the rehab facility, part of a six-year program. The length of was non-negotiable. That was the compromise the courts had made against the direct opposition of twenty-year sentences that drained the taxpayer, overcrowded the prisons. Six years was the bare minimum before a rehabilitated criminal was reassessed. If they didn’t seem to be genuinely changed, they remained in rehab for as long as it took. There was no chance for an appeal, and no bargains to be made. That was the way it worked. What it was designed for, and what Evans had been given.

But DePaul was to Evans. The medical records couldn’t lie. They had to be correct or it might kill the man. Carol had no misconceptions about the rest, she’d seen the corrupted system first-hand. Everything else about DePaul could be falsified or forged. What Evans would have likely counted on was the lack of interest in comparing these two, radically unaffiliated men’s medical files. It was a billion to one that anyone would even possess both of them, let alone actively search for a connection between them.

With the revelation, it appeared all of the puzzle’s pieces now lay before her. She need only to fit them together, but there was only one person that could help her finish the puzzle.

Rehab: Part 3

5.

Carol projected herself over the running tap to reach the speaker setting on her cell-phone, “I don’t know, but it wasn’t good. It was like… a drug overdose.”

“You know you can tell me if you’re using, Carrie,” Kathy said carefully.

“Damn it Kathy, I’m not on drugs!” She snapped. She pounded a fist against the sink, caused the phone to jump, flip mid-air beside her. It landed face-down.

Kathy hesitated, “Alright, I’m sorry Carrie. It’s just… there’s not much I can tell you. It sounds like text-book splitting.”

“What?”

Kathy explained as Carol ran cool water over her face, “Splitting’s a term for black and white thinking. Black and white thinking’s characterized by a lack of color to one’s perspective– when one believes all that is there is what they see and think they know. For instance, in black and white thinking one would say there are only two possible answers to any question; right or wrong. However, in colored thinking, there are three or more possible answers, but someone splitting will do their damnedest to whittle the options answers down to two– the black or the white.”

Carol shut off the tap, lifted a towel from the counter to pat her face dry, “Okay, I think I see where you’re going. But how’s it relate?”

“Well if you’re splitting, this guy you ran into will instantly either look like the… other guy, or not. Those are the only possible answers when splitting, but in truth, nobody’s that one-dimensional.”

Carol sighed, braced herself against the counter to stretch, “I don’t think that’s it Kath, I just… don’t. It seems too simple. For that matter, why would the reaction be so violent? I mean, I’m not that judgmental, am I?”

Kathy agreed, “No you’re right, you aren’t. At least not normally, anyhow. But the fact is Carrie, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s a defense mechanism triggered by trauma. You could have begun experiencing it unconsciously when the trial ended– you said yourself you felt like you’d failed those girls, failed yourself. Splitting’s caused by questioning your self worth. I can only imagine the blow you took from that.”

Carol gave a slow shake of her head, and a heavy exhale, “I don’t know. It’s too cut and dry, and I’d have figured you’d seen something like that by now, wouldn’t you?”

Kathy’s wavering certainty was a resounding “No,” but she expounded evasively, “The truth is, I’m getting older, Carrie. I’m not as observant as I once was. Plus, we’re friends. Those personal feelings make proper analysis impossible. It’s part of the reason we’re taught not to become emotionally involved with our clients.”

Carol frowned, swiveled to lean back against the sink and stare at her feet, “I figured you’d say something like that.”

“That’s the problem then,” Kathy admitted.

Carol’s eyes trailed along the floor to Buddy, his body melted into the tile. He gave a sigh as Carol crossed her arms, “As a professional, but also as a friend, what would you suggest?”

There was an audible wince over the phone, as though Kathy reeled at the thought of making a suggestion in this situation. She continued with a firm forward motion, “As a professional, I’d say you need to see a friend of mine, but I’m not sure he’d really be able to help with this problem.”

“It’s probably worth a shot,” Carol admitted graciously. “And as a friend, what would you say?”

Kathy was more forthcoming this time, her tension gone, “As your friend, I’d say you have two options; Let it go, or find out as much as possible about this guy, see if maybe it’s your woman’s intuition acting up. I mean, we have instincts for a reason, and this seems like instinct kicking in. You’ve had extensive, first-hand experience with wackos. Check him out. Maybe he’s another one.”

Carol sighed. She was exhausted, but relieved that the episode had passed. Her body no longer shook, and there was only a faint taste of bile left in her mouth.

“I’ll do that Kathy, see what I can dig up. Maybe then I can let it go. Thanks.”

Carol spent the next twelve hours scouring the internet. She read through dozens of business articles, watched double as many press videos and news reels. Each of them highlighted DePaul or his company’s quick rise to wealth and glory. Evidently, the company was competing for the fastest growing commercial construction business ever. Guinness and their books were already on it, with roughly half the articles she found speculating that DePaul would go down in the record books as one of the greatest businessmen ever. Strangely enough however, the most distant article she found came from a year ago, almost to the day in fact.

The local newspaper brief relayed the company’s particulars, highlighted DePaul’s extraordinary fortune and connections. At its inception, DePaul contracting was given several development contracts for local high-rises. Carol suspected corrupt government officials, but there was no evidence in the articles. Even so, if there was foul play involved in the money, there was no doubt it would extend elsewhere. Such was the nature of these types of people and deals.

It was on a natural instinct that she called Sherry. They needed to meet outside of work, discuss things. Sherry promised to oblige the next afternoon while Carol spent the better part of the night and morning researching both DePaul and her own illness. She found little else on either subject, slowly became frustrated, and calmed herself the only way she could think to; a walk with Buddy around the neighborhood.

The second time around the length of the block, the conversation with Kathy returned to the forefront of her mind. Was she splitting? Was everything so black and white that this random stranger had become the target of her unconscious ire? Was it really likely she’d become the victim of a mental illness that had been left unchecked, manifested physically?

It was possible, but still felt too cut and dry for her. She and Kathy had spent years dealing with her initial trauma and resentment of men after her own, vile experience. Though they’d only briefly touched on her feelings of failure after the trial, she’d taken solace in the fact that she’d done her best; it was the system that had failed, not her. She’d done all she could within her own power and within reason.

She made a mental note to look into the bastard after she spoke to Sherry. Opening old wounds may not be the best thing right now, but maybe it would help. Perhaps it was like a broken bone that hadn’t healed properly, required another breakage to be reset so it might return to its former, pain-free shape. As it was, the proverbial bone still seethed pain from time to time, her current reactions its residual throb otherwise drowned by the adrenaline of her fast-paced life.

When she and Buddy returned home, they found Sherry waiting on the front-porch. Carol apologized, but Sherry gave a dismissive wave; she hadn’t heard Buddy bark, suspected they were on their walk. Free of his leash, Buddy nearly tackled Sherry as he leapt at her, nuzzled her torso and arms, and almost knocked her over with pleas for love and attention. She giggled, kissed the side of his muzzle, and received a good once-over on the face with his tongue. He dropped back to his feet trotted off circle the yard.

Carol led them into the house, and offered Sherry a drink, “Rum?”

“Sure. Gotta’ be five o’clock somewhere.”

The bottle clanged with others, slid from beneath the sink as Carol produced two glasses from a cupboard, followed Sherry out the back door and to the table. They sat, mixed rum with cola, and talked for a long while. Ed and his oddly compulsive behavior were the first ass-ends of jokes. Then, Ed’s long time friend, Chuck, the other senior partner in the firm. He was, in fact, just as odd and obsessively compulsive as Ed. As usual, they joked about locking them alone in a messy room filled with countless, strewn files; Sherry gave it fifteen minutes before the room was clean. Carol, more realistic, said twenty-five.

Eventually, the sun began to set, engaged the solar lighting around the deck’s edges that faded in with time. As the day wound down, so did the bottle of rum, but only at its end did Sherry finally have the courage to ask what had been wrong. Carol wasn’t one to miss work, even when sick. At the very least, she would come in until Ed or Chuck sent her home for fear of catching her illness.

Carol hesitated to search for words until everything spilled from her at once; from the initial resentment of the trial, to the episode in the street and the next in the house. She elaborated on her conversation with Kathy, and her frustration at DePaul’s spotless public record.

Sherry listened with careful interest and intrigue until Carol broke down into sobs. She wept with a high, nasally voice, distraught by the toll things were taking. Sherry fell to her knees, beside Carol’s chair, shushed and comforted her.

Buddy’s near-constant whimpers went silent when Carol wiped her eyes, sniffled, “I’m sorry.”

Sherry’s voice was high, sympathetic, “For what?”

“My blubbering. You know I’m not–”

“Don’t be sorry, Carrie. I’m your friend, that’s what I’m here for. Besides, I wouldn’t’ve asked if I weren’t concerned. You’re allowed to be upset. Hell, I’d probably have put myself in the hospital by now. I just… I don’t know what to do. Is there anything I can do?”

Carol wiped her eyes again, looked Sherry over. The question’s sincerity was poised on her limp brows, Carol obliged to answer. She exhaled a thick breath, “ I don’t know.”

“Come on, you’ve gotta’ have something worked out Carrie. I know you well enough to know that. You’ve got something planned, right?”

She thought about it for a moment; did she have a plan? Could she really breach an innocent man’s privacy? Was she really prepared to take this to that level, re-open that old wound? Could it really help her sickness? She wasn’t sure of anything, save that she had to learn more about DePaul.

She finally spoke again, her eyes and face still wet. Determination inflected in the edges of her voice, “I was thinking about looking into Evans.” She wiped her face with a trembling hand, “Maybe check into the rehab facility.” Sherry nodded her onward. She sighed, “According to the Sheriff’s department, the success rate of their programs are outstanding with little-to-no repeat offenders. Maybe it’ll help to make sure he’s there– still serving his time.”

Sherry nodded, rose to retake her seat. Carol leaned forward, rubbed her temples, drained the last of her glass, then relaxed back into the chair. She stared up at the stars, barely visible through Oakton’s smog and light-pollution.

Her gaze fall back to the solar lights that lined the deck, and Sherry finally broke the silence. “I’ll help you, Carrie. Whatever you need.”

“No, it’s alright. I can’t ask you–”

“You didn’t. I decided on my own. I’m helping you with this. The last thing I need right now’s for something to happen to you. I mean, how the hell would I deal with Ed and Chuck on my own?”

Carol managed a small laugh. Buddy gave a solitary bark that echoed through the night. Even so, the momentary happiness was soon swallowed by that ill-foreboding in Carol’s gut.