I tried to get her to stay, to at least wait until I got home to decide anything, before she did what she said she would. I told her she couldn't go, she'd at least have to talk to me. In a quiet desperation I told her that she couldn't do this over the phone, for god's sake.
But of course she could.
I could hear the crying in her voice, could imagine the tear-streaked face wetting the phone as she struggled to maintain enough composure to tell me what she was doing. My wife was leaving me? She was taking my daughter? Why? Where? Why now?
"Lori," I said, the fingers of my right hand death-gripped to the steering wheel of my car. "Is Roxy okay?"
A loud sniffle. "She's fine, she doesn't know anything. Just that we have to go…."
"Doesn't know anything about what, Lori? Damn it, just stay there. I'll be home in fifteen minutes-"
"I won't be there, Jeff. I'm already gone." She paused. "I love you."
And then she quickly hung up. I threw the cell phone across my body into the passenger seat where it bounced up into the panel covering the air bag and ended up somewhere else.
What the hell was I supposed to do now?
Leslie Alcaro called just after I'd lost the phone. I let my hand follow the ringing and leaned hard to pull my phone out from between the passenger door and the passenger seat.
"Prentiss," I said, barely aware of the phone, the road, the traffic.
"Hello, Jeff, it's Leslie." She sounded awkward, probably since I'd just left her office.
"More lawyer stuff?" I asked.
"No, nothing like that. Your wife just called here. She didn't sound well. I told her you'd gone. Was that okay?"
Was that okay. I'm meeting with my union lawyer to try to save my job and my wife calls to tell me she's leaving. Only she's already done it. Of course everything's okay.
"That was fine, Leslie." At a loss for anything else to say, I added, "Thank you."
"That's- that's fine, Jeff. I wanted to say, you know you could come back. Here, I mean. If you wanted. We could-"
"No thank you, Leslie. I have to get home right now." Or did I? I didn't really know.
Quickly, "Okay, Jeff, that's fine. I just- well, if you need to talk to someone…."
"And everything we say is confidential, right?"
She gave a small laugh. "Something like that."
"Another time," I said, no feeling of grace in my voice. I just hung up, feeling cruel and mean and having no other place to let it out. She didn't need me reminding her what an ass I was. Especially when she had only been reaching out. I knew she was lonely over the state of her own marriage and I liked her. But there were lines, always lines.
I sat pulled over in the car for as long as I dared. The sky outside was an effervescent sort of black, a state that passed for darkness these days in central Florida along the Gulf Coast. Too many streetlights, parking lot lights and warehouse and home security vapor lights have obliterated all but the brightest objects in the night sky. There was no moon over St. Petersburg and I sometimes thought it didn't need one anymore.
The caller ID on my cell phone had showed that Lori had been using hers, which meant that what she'd said was probably true, that she'd already left the house. I had no doubt she was gone. I could feel it. Maybe in some weird psychic way I'd even been expecting it. She and Roxy were out there, but like the missing night-time stars, I couldn't see them through the haze. Yet I felt no surprise, just a sense of deep loss.
Yes, there had been a rough few weeks-months?-but were they enough to make her leave? Why didn't she tell me anything about it beforehand? Why didn't she try to talk it out? Isn't that what husbands and wives are supposed to do with each other?
I'd been giving her space because I knew she was troubled. She'd been that way since Roy disappeared. She didn't bring it up, and I couldn't, but it was clear that she was having problems. I didn't know what to say to her, I didn't know what she needed to hear, or what she could handle. Roxy could tell something was wrong too, but she was smart enough to leave us both alone.
In the end, neither of us said anything. Anything at all. And that silence that turns to darkness can kill any relationship ever forged.
But what could I do? Roy Lee Evans wasn't coming back, I knew that, and that was what Lori wanted, I believed. It was what I knew. It had to be. Even Roxy wanted that, and Roy was her biological father. They weren't safe with him coming around again. They couldn't be at peace and they knew that. There was real danger with him around. As a husband, as a father, as a cop, even just as a man, I had to do something. Ultimately it was up to me to keep them safe.
I checked my watch. Now I had to get moving. The M.E. was waiting for me at the crime scene and my lieutenant was waiting for me to call him. Goddamnit to hell. Every last stinking bit of it. Why couldn't I get a few hours alone to try to pull my own mess of a life together? I didn't need Leslie offering whatever it was she was offering, I didn't need more crap from the department, and I didn't need to work a new case in the middle of the night. What I needed was a way to keep from exploding from the inside out.
I put the car into gear and pulled back onto the road, heading south on Fourth Street. The interstate would be faster but I kept driving past the cross streets that would take me to an on ramp. The hell with 'em. The dead body wasn't going anywhere.
Breathing deeply, trying to hold it together, to not think, I noticed my hands were trembling on the wheel. Starting with my neck, I tried to concentrate on each muscle, each muscle group, force them to relax. I couldn't let them see me struggle. I couldn't let them look at me that way. That's what they were all looking for and I wouldn't let them win, even if they'd earned it.
I just drove.
The corpse was a male, dressed in black, elegant yet non-descript. No jewelry. Both shoes were missing and one sock was gone. A piece of frayed rope was knotted around the man's chest, the loop set tight under the arms. His hands were tied behind his back with a piece of what looked to be the same type of rope.
He had been pulled up on to the rocky sand beach so that the head was out of the water, pointing up the gentle slope toward land, the feet still bobbed gently in the tiny waves. The area had been taped off and a tech was setting up a pair of portable lights to illuminate the scene. Tiny crabs scuttled along the edges of the shadows.
Wally Steener, the county medical examiner, was waiting outside the cordoned area, taking notes. "Jesus," he said. "Take your sweet time, why don't you?"
I didn't respond. Steener looked at my face and then let it drop. Besides, my partner wasn't there, either. I walked over to the tape and peered down at the body. Headlights flared in the lot behind me and I turned and saw Moran's banana yellow Monte Carlo pull in next to my Jeep.
Steener's voice came from my elbow. "You okay, Jeff?"
Jesus. "Everything's grand, Wally." To Moran I yelled, "Get down here, Terry."
The portable lights blasted an unforgiving arc across the body on the beach. The face was swollen and bruised. The eyes were open and didn't look-normal.
We asked the officer controlling the scene who had found the body. Sweeney, I think his name was. "Don't know," he said as he wrote my name on his clipboard, then Moran's. "It was called in, sounded like a kid, was what I was told." Moran and I ducked under the tape and followed single file along the existing footprints to the water's edge.
"Who moved him?" Moran called back to Sweeney.
"I did. It was floating about three feet out. I pulled him in and flipped him over, left him there."
"Cool," Moran told him. Then to me he said quietly, "You look like shit."
"You have no idea. And you can't see that well in the dark."
"Yeah, well, take my word for it and stay out of the light."
I listened through the raging background wash of my mind, saw images of my wife and daughter, the inevitable growing but still unseen image of a house, formally a home, without them in it, as my partner did the job and asked all the right questions of those around him. I could see the beach wasn't the murder scene. There would be no evidence here. Had someone called for a boat?
I shined my light across the inky flatness of Tampa Bay. A lone sailboat seemed stuck to the surface about fifty yards out, hull paint peeling, uncared for. Probably abandoned, now likely home to some junky or group thereof. Beyond and to the east the lights and orange-yellow cable-stays of the Sunset Skyway bridge rose 190 feet above the water. Architecturally brilliant light pollution.
"We should probably check the bridge."
"You think he could have been a jumper?" Moran asked.
"That wouldn't explain the rope," I said. "More like an involuntary flight job. What do you think, Wally?"
Steener shook his head. "I can't tell. If he jumped or was thrown off the bridge, I'd say someone had already worked over his face. His body too, to some degree. I'd have to get him on the table to tell you more."
"Time of death?"
"I'll take his core temp now. But if this guy came from someplace else it's going to be a guess with half a dozen asterisks behind it. The water temperature's too inconsistent with all these flats to factor in accurately."
I grunted and pointed out the pieces of rope to my partner. "Look at this crap," I said.
"Nothing you'd expect to find on any self-respecting boat."
Moran was a big fisherman and would know about these things. "Not on my mine, anyway."
"There's something else," I said. Steener stepped up to do something to the body but I stopped him with a touch on the shoulder.
"What?" Moran asked.
"I think I know him."
"That what's eating your shit?"
I ignored that. "You know him, too."
Moran walked around the body and shone his light on the lightly disfigured face. "Sort of looks familiar…."
"Shawcross," I said. "The King of Cats."
"No shit," Moran said, leaning closer to the damaged face. "I think you're right. Damn. Lot of cops gonna be disappointed they didn't get to him first."
"They still want him behind bars."
"No, they want to do something like this to him."
I stared at my partner. He stood up and flicked off his light. He finally caught me looking at him. "No. That's not what I was saying…."
"Hm," I said. With the forbearance of Steener, I knelt down and went through Shawcross's pockets. There was nothing there.
"Think he was working?" Moran asked.
"Dressed all in black costume, clean pockets, could have been."
"That's going to upset a whole lot of people."
I turned around and ducked back under the tape. Lori's voice was getting louder in my mind. I was starting to lose the small amount of focus I was working with. I couldn't concentrate anymore.
Moran stepped up beside me. "Seriously, what's going on, man?"
"It's raining shit, Terry."
"I thought you had this job crap handled. The brass getting on your ass again?"
I'd had some trouble on a case and it came out in a bad way in court. Moran had drawn the short straw after my suspension and transfer and been made my partner. We were friends despite all of it. "No," I said. "Lori."
"She okay? How's Roxy?"
"They're gone, Terry. Lori took Roxy and left." I told him about the phone call.
"I am so sorry. What're you going to do?"
"Listen, can you ride this in? Greene's waiting for a call but I've got to get out of here. I'm going to lose it all over this place." Part of me wanted to add, And I can't afford to do that. The lawyer in Leslie Alcaro would have been proud.
"Go," Moran said. "I'll call the lieut. I'll make up some bullshit if he wants to talk to you."
"No, don't do that," I told him. "Don't get yourself in trouble on my account."
He said, "Man, all you are is trouble," but there was concern in his voice.
"Yeah, but they're just waiting for it. Tell him I've gone to see Darlene Shawcross."
He jerked his head toward the beach. "His wife?"
"Yeah," I said, walking away. "Someone has to do the notification. And maybe she knows what Randy was up to."
"She'll talk to you?"
I left the shore and drove slowly out of the park along the shell road. I picked up my cell phone and dialed Lori's number. I don't know why I hadn't done it already. I guess I would have been surprised to hear her voice answer back.
And I was right. No answer. Not even voice mail.
I hit pavement and took a left at the first light and headed north to 54th Avenue. Before I did anything else, I was going home. A quick stop, I told myself. Tears began rolling down my cheeks. Darlene Shawcross would just have to wait a little while.