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Authors: Sara Vinduska

The Drowning Man (8 page)

BOOK: The Drowning Man
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When he opened his eyes again, a big man with shaggy black and gray curls stood at the end of the dim hallway. Ted, one of the ladder guys and Trent’s occasional drinking buddy, shook his head as if he’d seen a ghost, which wasn’t that far off from the truth.

“Trent, shit, why the hell didn’t you tell us you were coming in?” he asked.

“Thought I’d surprise you,” Trent said, coming closer and depositing his gear in front of the row of lockers that lined one side of the hall.

Ted clapped him on the shoulder, then inspected his shorter hair and crooked nose. “Well, at least you're not such a pretty boy anymore. Though you do look better than the last time I saw you.”

Another familiar face poked his head out of the lounge area a few doors down. “He still looks like shit to me. Barlow! Get the fuck over here!” Chief Burt Culmer said, joining them in the hall.

“Chief,” Trent said with a small nod.

Ted motioned him forward and he and the chief followed Trent into the largest room in the firehouse where they usually gathered when they weren’t in the kitchen or out on a call. Trent was instantly surrounded by men he considered brothers. The rumble of their voices welcomed him home.

“Damn good to have you back, man.”

“Our very own celebrity.”

The comments ranged from these to concerned silent looks and unasked questions. Trent looked at the familiar faces as he shook hands and felt their slaps on his back. There was one guy he didn't recognize. And one that was missing. “Where's Chad? The son of a bitch never takes a day off.” Trent said.

Dead silence. Awkward glances.

“Chief?” Trent asked.

“Why don't you come to my office for a minute.”

Trent took an angry step towards his boss. “Whatever it is, just fucking tell me. Why isn’t he here? Did he get hurt?” He looked around at the other guys in the room. No one met his eyes now. Not even Ted.

“My office, Trent,” the chief said, turning and walking out the door. “Now.”

Trent sighed and followed his boss down the hall. He put his hands on his hips and raised his eyebrows, waiting, while the chief shut the door and sat down behind his desk.

The chief shifted in his chair before he spoke. “There was a four alarm at an apartment building downtown about a week after you disappeared. It was bad, one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Chad was on the roof when it went down. He fell all the way to the basement.”

Trent looked down at the cracked linoleum floor then back up quickly. He leaned forward, placing his palms flat on the chief’s desk. “Are you telling me he didn't make it? Are you fucking telling me that Chad is dead?”

“I'm sorry, Trent, I know you two were close.” He looked down, cleared his throat, shuffled papers.

“Who went up with him? Who helped with the venting?”

The chief met his eyes. “Everything was by the book. No one screwed up. It just happened.”

“If I'd been there …”

Chief Culmer stood, rounded the desk, and put a hand on Trent's shoulder. “Don't you do that to yourself. Don't you fuckin' do that.”

Trent’s chest heaved. He needed air. He threw the office door open and took a step into the hall. He turned, backed up against the wall, and ran his hands over his face. “No,” he moaned. He turned towards the wall and pounded his fist against it. “No,” he said, louder this time.

He braced himself with his arms, leaning forward, head down, and forced himself to breathe. This couldn’t be real. Chad was the best damn firefighter in the entire department. He couldn’t be dead. It wasn’t possible. Trent halfway hoped he was back in that room in Caroline’s house, hallucinating.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, jerking him back to reality. “Why don't you go home,” the chief said.

They both raised their heads as the alarm went off and the tones for both the engine and ladder companies sounded.

“I'm not going home,” Trent said, turning towards Burt. “I'm going with them,” he said as the guys hurried past gathering up their gear.

“I understand, believe me I do, but you're in no shape to go out there right now.”

“I can do this, boss. Let me do my fucking job.”

“I don't doubt your ability. This company needs you. But we need you at your best. Go home. Come back tomorrow and we'll talk.”

Trent clenched his jaw as he watched the chief walk away. He didn't move again until the station was empty. He slowly walked into the kitchen and sat down heavily in the nearest chair. Chad was dead. He knew it was true, but still couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that he'd never see his friend walk through the firehouse door again. He'd never have a beer with him after work. They’d never chase women together again.

They'd always worked the roof together. They were a good team. Would Chad still be alive if he'd been up there next to him that day? God, how could he live with that? How could fate be cruel enough to take away the two friends he'd been closest to and leave him alive?

He raised his head and looked around the building that had been a second home to him for more than ten years. A second family. The thought sent a sharp stab of pain through his stomach. He couldn’t save anyone. Not even himself. Maybe he should just quit. He'd do it in a heartbeat if he thought they'd be better off without him.

He clenched his fists. He had to pull it together. He was still a part of this family, still had a responsibility to them and he would not let another one of them down. He'd be there alongside them, fighting fires and saving lives. He had to be. Placing a hand on each knee, he forced himself to stand up.

 

Trent drove to work the next morning in a daze. He'd run hard the night before and his legs were sore. He looked at his gear piled on the seat next to him. The chief would never let him go out on a call, but the sooner they got his re-training scheduled and got his name back on rotation, the sooner he could get back to doing his job.

This time he walked straight to Chief Culmer's office and knocked once on the open door. The chief was on the phone but motioned him inside. Trent sat down in the worn visitor’s chair and glanced around the sparsely decorated space. Other than a framed diploma from Kansas State University and a football team photo from the chief’s senior year, the walls were bare. But that was the chief.

The chief hung up, glanced at Trent, looked down at his desk, then back up. “When’s the trial?” he asked.

“Two weeks,” Trent answered.

Chief Burt Culmer studied the man in front of him. Trent Barlow looked like a shrunken version of his former self. Hell, he didn't even look strong enough to carry his equipment, let alone battle a blazing fire. But it wasn't just the weight he'd lost, his eyes had taken on a wary, untrusting look.

“You sure you're ready to be back?”

Trent held his boss's gaze, his eyes regaining some of the old passionate spark Burt was used to seeing. “Don't ask me that again.”

Burt took a black notebook-sized calendar out of his top desk drawer. “Your EMT certifications are still up to date, so we don't have to worry about that. We’ll do your training next week. We’ll start you out with half-shifts three weeks from now. Bump you back up to full time a week after that. Okay?”

It wasn’t really a question, but Trent agreed anyway. “Sure, Chief.”

The unspoken message was clear. He was welcome, but he better not get in the way or let any part of his situation become a distraction to the house until he was one hundred percent back on the job, physically and mentally.

Burt’s face softened, though the change was barely visible. “It’s damned good to have you back. The guys will be glad to have you around again. We need you.”

 

Trent drove home not really seeing anything around him, relying solely on his instincts, his movements automatic. The trial. There was something he did
not
want to think about. He hadn’t stuck around to talk to the guys after his visit with the chief. They’d have questions and concerns he didn’t want to deal with at the moment. Hell, he couldn’t even remember any of them visiting him in the hospital. And knowing they'd seen him at his broken worst … One more thing he did not want to think about.

He turned down his street and stopped in front of his apartment building. He stared at the front door, unmoving, engine running. He put the truck back in gear and continued on. Nothing good waited for him inside, just ghosts and empty rooms. He looked at the dashboard clock. 12:30 p.m. He slowed down as he passed his favorite bar. Drinking himself into oblivion was tempting. Not smart, but tempting.

He made a u-turn at the next intersection and headed back towards his apartment. Inside, he changed into his running clothes. He shut and locked the door behind him and started for the park at a slow jog. He’d always run the trails at Cross Pointe when he’d needed a release. Maybe one day he would again. But not today.

One more thing the bitch had taken from him.

His legs and feet moved faster. His breath came in gasps. His lungs burned. His muscles screamed in protest. But he pushed on, determined to run his ghosts into the ground. He didn’t know any other way to do it.

 

Three hours later, Nathan looked out the peephole of his front door, swallowed hard, and opened the door. Trent limped inside, a small paper bag clutched in his hand. “We’ve got leftovers in the fridge if you’re hungry,” Nathan said.

Trent shook his head.

Nathan put a hand on Trent's shoulder and led his brother through the house and outside to the back deck. Trent couldn’t quite suppress a groan as he sat down in one of the chairs.

“Punishing yourself, I see,” Nathan said as he sat in the other chair.

“Just trying to get back in shape.”

“Uh huh.” Nathan was all too familiar with his brother’s need to run himself into the ground when he was struggling with something.

Trent pulled a bottle out of the bag, opened it, took a long swig, then handed it to his brother.

Running obviously hadn’t been enough this time. Nathan took a drink, feeling the bourbon burn on the way down. He knew better than to ask Trent what was going on. Trent would talk when he was good and ready. He took another drink then handed the bottle back.

Trent took a swallow then sat the bottle down between them. “I went to the firehouse,” he said quietly, staring out into the darkness.

“That’s good,” Nathan said.

“Chad’s dead.”

“I know,” Nathan said as he reached for the bottle.

Trent turned in his chair to face him. “You fucking knew my best friend was dead and you didn’t tell me?”

“It was for your own good. We wanted to protect you. You had enough to deal with.”

“Oh, well, that’s just fucking great. Thanks for that. I’m not a goddamned child that needs to be sheltered, Nate.”

“I know that. I just wanted to protect you. Big brothers do that. Or at least they're supposed to.”

Trent’s jaw muscle ticked. “You should have told me.”

Nathan stared out across his backyard, then glanced back at Trent. “I’m sorry.”

Trent nodded and took a drink.

A half-hour later, Trent stood on unsteady legs. “I gotta go.”

“The only place you’re going is the couch, little brother.”

Trent mumbled a reply and followed Nathan into the house. By the time he got a blanket out of the closet, Trent was already asleep on the couch. After carefully tucking the blanket around him, Nathan turned out the light. When he got up at 6:30 the next morning, the only thing on the couch was the neatly folded blanket.

Chapter 17

Lora only went to court on the morning she was scheduled to give her testimony. She hadn’t wanted to take the chance of upsetting Trent Barlow with her presence in the courtroom. She had, however, been paying close attention to the trial. Doctor Caroline Newberry was pleading insanity despite all the evidence of how thorough and methodical she'd been throughout the weeks of Trent’s abduction. Lora had never been in favor of the insanity defense. It was nothing more than a cop out.

Given the right circumstances, almost anyone could do something insane, but that was no excuse for what Caroline Newberry had done to Trent Barlow. Fortunately, the judge had a tough but fair reputation. Unfortunately, this was one of those situations where having family money and community standing meant getting the best defense attorney in the city. Who just happened to be tight with well-known psychiatrists who were so far making a good case for the insanity plea. Hopefully she and Woods could do something about that with their testimonies.

Lora parked in the back lot of the courthouse, got out of her department issued car, and faced the gauntlet of bodies, cameras, and microphones. It was a media circus up and down the street. And not just the local anchors and reporters were gathered outside the courthouse, the nationally known ones were there too. The case had just enough sensationalism to catch their attention. She knew they had a job to do, yet she had little sympathy for people who preyed on others’ misfortune. She also knew she was very much going to enjoy watching Doctor Caroline Newberry go down.

Lora stayed in the hallway outside the courtroom until she was called to the stand. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to testify in a case, so she made her way to the front of the room, went through the motions of being sworn in, and took a seat.

She swallowed bile as she sat in the witness chair, looking at this ordinary looking woman, a pillar of the community, who was capable of such extraordinary evil and hatred. She’d seen enough in her years as a cop to know how deceiving looks could be, but this was so far beyond the norm, it was incomprehensible. She intentionally avoided looking at anyone else, but focused her attention on only the lawyer questioning her and the woman she wanted to help put away.

Her plan nearly backfired when Caroline's blue eyes met hers. No remorse, no sorrow. Just cold arrogance. Lora unconsciously crossed a line. The case became more than just business as usual. It became personal. And the bitch was going down.

It took every ounce of her self-control to not show any emotion and stick to the facts as she answered the questions. The effort left her so exhausted, she could barely stand when she was dismissed twenty minutes later.

BOOK: The Drowning Man
8.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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