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Authors: Sara Vinduska

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BOOK: The Drowning Man
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The double doors shut behind her with a solid thud and she sighed, getting her bearings. Trent Barlow sat in the hallway on a bench, waiting for his turn to testify, hands clasped together, head bent down. His older brother stood protectively next to him, arms crossed across his chest. Nathan Barlow nodded as she passed by. Trent didn't look up.

She got a better look at Trent on the news that evening, leaving the courtroom after giving his testimony that afternoon. He looked exhausted, his dark eyes haunted. He was still too thin, but not emaciated like he'd been when she'd pulled him out of the tank. He also looked determined and somehow tougher, almost menacing, with his hair closely cropped and the beard gone. She could only imagine what it had been like for him to sit across from the woman, describing to the judge and jury the physical and mental hell she'd put him through for all those days. It took a very strong person to survive what he had.

After eating leftover Chinese takeout for dinner, she fought the urge to call Trent to see how he was doing. Instead, she called Woods to check in. Satisfied that she hadn’t missed anything of importance at work, still wiped out but too wired for sleep, Lora walked the four blocks to her gym.

Avoiding the shiny new weight machines and high-tech cardio fitness center, she went down the hall, past the aerobics rooms, to the very back of the building. It was the only room in the gym she used. It smelled like stale sweat and contained only mats, punching bags, and a boxing ring. More often than not, she was the only woman there and that suited her just fine, especially on nights like this when she needed to work out her aggressions in a safe environment.

She’d tried yoga. Once. But couldn't deal with all the New Agey breathe through one nostril, ohm, shit.

Boxing was an acceptable way for her to work out her aggressions. It kept her sanity in check. As an added bonus, it also kept her body in remarkable shape. Not that she cared about her physical appearance, but it was important that she stay in top form to do her job. And to beat the living shit out of anyone who dared take her on.

She pictured Caroline Newberry's face and smashed her gloved fist into the bag over and over again.

 

Thanks to the local media's fascination with Caroline's case, and a newspaper vending machine just outside his hotel room, Simon Hewett was able to follow the trial while he healed. Though the TV coverage and the crappy set in his room didn't allow him the vantage point he would have liked, it was better than nothing.

His first glimpse of Caroline on the screen three days earlier had been painful. She'd walked out of the courthouse on her own but it was clear the bastard doctors that were treating her had pumped her full of something. Whatever it was kept her alert and functioning, but when the camera went in for a close-up, he could see the changes in her eyes. While still the same brown color, they held no warmth, no spark of the woman she'd once been.

But Simon would make it right, no matter how long it took him.

He sat on the edge of the bed now, riveted to the small screen in front of him. At the sight of Detective Lora Tatum walking down the steps, his wound started to throb. Oh yeah, the bitch was going to pay for that.

Then came the money shot. The wounded hero. Trent Barlow. The Drowning Man. Simon shook his head.
He
didn't even have a nickname.
He
was just suspect number two, still at large. And planning to keep it that way.

Though he did have to hand it to Barlow. The man appeared to be recovering nicely. Of course having the entire city adoring you had to help. Barlow should be
thanking
him for his newfound fame.

Simon punched the off button on the remote and leaned back on the bed and closed his eyes. He had a lot of planning to do.

Chapter 18

Trent sat directly behind the prosecutor as Caroline stood to face the judge, thankful he could only see the back of her head and not her face. He didn’t move, didn’t breathe. Time slowed, his vision tunneled, sounds blurred together.

Guilty by reason of insanity, twenty years in a maximum-security mental institution.
Those were the only words he heard the judge say. They echoed through his mind. He let out his breath. It was over.

It was unlikely Caroline would ever get out of the institution. If she did, she'd be a very old woman. Yet Trent had still hoped for jail. Or death.

At least she’d never be free again. There was some justice in that. He’d gone through his testimony on autopilot, not allowing himself to feel or show any emotion. He made the mistake now of glancing at the jury. One man caught his eye and gave him a triumphant nod. The woman next to him had tears in her eyes. Trent's hands fisted at his sides. What the hell did they know about what he’d been through?

Trent struggled against sudden exhaustion as he braced his palms on his knees and stood. He was instantly surrounded by his attorney, his brother, and half a dozen cops as they made their way through the crowd and the chaos to the waiting car.

“Want to stop for a drink?” Nathan asked as he pulled away from the courthouse.

Trent managed a shrug.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

After several random turns to make sure none of the reporters were following, Nathan drove them to a downtown sports bar. Though Trent knew his brother’s true motivation, to keep him from being alone after his day in court, he
did
need the distraction. He needed to do something normal like have a beer with his brother.

Of course, he'd never get the chance to have a beer with Chad again, he thought as they settled into a booth at the back of the bar. The thought caused a wave of anger so sharp, he nearly doubled over in pain. He swallowed it down with a long drink of cold beer.

Nathan talked about sports, about the latest students he’d had to expel, about the girls’ school activities. Trent interjected a comment here and there, thankful that his brother knew him well enough to not mention Caroline or the trial. Or Simon.

“You should eat,” Nathan said.

Trent pushed his nearly full plate of hot wings aside. “I know.” He needed to fuel his body. He'd gone for a run early that morning to clear his mind before court and had barely made it two miles before exhaustion overtook him and he'd had to walk back home, sweating and shaking. He finished his beer instead.

Nathan scowled.

“Don't worry, Nate, I haven't been drunk since the first night I was back home.” He paused. “And the night at your place.”

Nathan laughed. “Screw it. If anybody deserves to get drunk, it's you bro.” He signaled the waitress for another round.

“The girls miss you. Why don't you come to dinner Sunday night,” Nathan suggested when they were both halfway through the fresh beers.

Trent missed them too. More often than not, he was at his brother's house every Sunday for dinner and to watch football or whatever other sport was on during the off-season. Still, he hesitated. He felt tainted, like he wasn't fit to be around normal, decent people like his brother's family. He hadn't done anything wrong, he knew that. But what he'd done to that reporter in front of them scared him. That wasn't him. At least it hadn't been. And he could never go back to being who he was two months ago. How the hell could he explain that?

“Trent. We want you there. All of us.”

He nodded, his throat tight with emotion. “I'll be there.”

“Good,” Nathan said, finishing his beer.

“The reporters hassling you?” Nathan asked a few minutes later.

Trent shrugged. “Some, but I don’t think ‘fuck off’ is the kind of quote they’re looking for.”

 

No matter how many times Trent had stood right where he was, on his brother’s porch waiting for him to open the front door on a Sunday afternoon, this time was different. This time he felt … not quite nervous. Apprehensive, maybe? Out of place? Like an idiot for even thinking this way.

Nathan opened the door and threw his arms around Trent, instead of his usual head nod. Amy appeared next to her husband, looking close to tears. Trent’s chest tightened and he took a step back.

The girls hesitated, then ran to him and hugged his legs. A trickle of relief flowed through him. At least that was one thing that was normal.

“Come in, sit, relax,” Amy ordered, ushering him into the kitchen. “I made tacos.”

Trent pulled out a chair and sat at his usual spot at the table between Nathan and Nicole.

He cleared his throat and took a long drink of water. How long would it take before he was comfortable around people again? He could only hope it would be soon. Right now, he just wanted to make it through dinner.

At first the meal was filled with nervous small talk. Everyone talked more than usual but ate less. By the time Amy brought in dessert they had all relaxed and eased back into familiar banter with only the occasional awkward moment of silence.

Amy slid another piece of chocolate cake onto his plate. “You need this. It’s full of delicious empty calories,” she said.

He felt like he was being accepted back into their world. Or at least starting to be. If only adults could be as resilient as kids. Though he hadn’t exactly bounced right back after Eddie’s death. Maybe there were some things you never got over. You just had to find a way to deal with them.

By the end of the night the girls acted like he'd never been gone, crawling all over his lap, showing him their new toys and games, bringing out drawings they did for him while he was gone and in the hospital.

And for a few brief minutes, his world was back to normal.

Chapter 19

Simon Hewett had made it his business to observe everything he could about Detectives Justice Woods and Lora Tatum. Woods wasn't the enemy, but he could be useful. Lora Tatum had been the lead on Barlow's case. She was the one who'd shot him, the one who'd ruined everything.

The two detectives were close, that much was obvious. But not in the way of lovers. Theirs appeared to be more of a brother/sister relationship.

They were both so damned predictable. Showed up for work on time, parked in the same spot every day. Worked their cases thoroughly and methodically. Woods went straight home after work to his family. Lora stayed late, worked out, then went home alone.

Simon watched them now, crossing the parking lot to their department car. Lora already had her hair pulled back. Must be having a bad morning. He laughed. She always wore slacks, usually black, with a fitted blouse, usually white, and flats, usually black. Her long hair was always loose and flowing when she arrived for work, but ended up in a ponytail. He knew her mood by how fast her hair went up.

Woods was dressed in his usual uniform of khaki pants with a knit shirt, the color varied by day, an endless rainbow of mediocrity, and a tan sport coat with brown loafers. On warm days, he skipped the socks. He was walking almost normally now, there was almost no visible sign of the injury Simon had inflicted. The man had no idea how lucky he was. He was one of the few Simon had tried, and failed, to kill.

 

Trent absently flipped through the newspaper pages as the sun rose outside his kitchen window. Then an image caught his full attention.

Detective Lora Tatum. Such a beautiful face, even in newspaper grays. Too bad it only reminded Trent of the torture he'd been through. Even seeing her picture in the paper caused a flood of unpleasant memories. It was bad enough that her face surfaced occasionally in his dreams, now he had to see it when he opened up the morning paper.

He supposed he should be flattered people found him interesting enough to write and read about. But he wasn't. He'd been the subject of a few editorials, even had his own nickname.
The Drowning Man.
He hated people thinking of him that way. As a victim. Hated even more that the media wouldn’t drop the story.

The article proclaimed Detective Tatum a hero for saving him. They called his survival a miracle. Now the bastards wanted to interview him. They'd left countless messages for him at home and at the station. They stood outside his apartment for days on end. Maybe he should do it, tell them the truth, that sometimes he wished she hadn't saved him, that he wished he'd died in the tank. That would blow their feel good story all to hell.

He crumpled up the paper and threw it across the room. He just wanted to forget about the whole damned thing. Was that so much to ask?

He finished his cup of coffee then slammed the empty mug down on the counter. Not the way he wanted to start his first day back training. He ran a hand over his close-cropped hair and took a deep breath. He'd put the anger aside, use it later in the training course.

 

An hour later, Trent stood in the parking lot of the training center, looking up at the three-story tower the company affectionately referred to as Old Smokey.

“Piece of cake,” Ted said, clapping him on the shoulder.

The chief stood nearby, stopwatch and clipboard in hand. “Whenever you're ready,” he said.

Trent took a deep breath and pulled on his pants, boots, jacket, and helmet. He methodically went through each of the physical agility exercises. The half-mile run, dummy drag, hose pull, ladder raise. The chief checked each one off as he passed.

“Want to take a break before Smokey?” the chief asked.

Trent shook his head. “I just want to get this over with.”

It was eerie, standing alone in the square ground floor room. The SCBA unit on his back felt heavier than he remembered, but it was a familiar, comforting weight. He heard the soft hiss and crackle of fire coming to life in the burn room. All he had to do was make his way up through the tower, find the dummy, and carry it out to safety. Piece of cake.

He adjusted the mask over his face. Everything was slightly distorted. Like looking through clear water. Or glass. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. The images in front of him blurred as the walls closed in.

Panic squeezed his chest. He turned and took a step towards the open door behind him. No. He could not fail. He concentrated on his breathing and forced himself to relax. This was his job. This was who he was. He turned back around and faced the stairs. He could do this. One step at a time.

BOOK: The Drowning Man
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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