Rehab

1.

“Are the papers in order?” Carol Switzer asked through her Bluetooth headset. She shuffled papers on her desk into a manila folder, slipped them into her Italian-leather briefcase. “Good. I have an appointment. After that is lunch with the prosecutor. I’ll see you there.”

There was a short pause as she stuck a blazer-clad arm through the briefcase’s strap, pulled her overcoat off the office chair. She laid the jacket on her arm, whirled ’round for the door across the cramped office.

“No we’re just going over some depositions. The other work can’t begin until we get those files.” She slipped from the office into the large, open lobby. Her shadow sliced through the rays of sunlight that splayed over the marble entryway and reception desk.

She threw a casual hand at the receptionist there as she passed, continued her conversation, “Yes. Third street… Uh-huh. See you then.”

She tapped a finger against her ear, pulled open the door. Her heels clacked her path from the building, down short steps to the sidewalk. She tossed an arm up at an approaching yellow cab, slipped into its backseat, set her briefcase beside her.

“100 West, please,” Carol instructed. The cabby nodded, silent, and idled forward into traffic.

Single, thirty-three, and sharp-minded, Carol was a junior partner in what was once the second-most renowned law-firm in Oakton. She spoke quickly, was always organized, and would keep her weekly, noon appointment with characteristic punctuality as she had for nearly a decade.

Long ago Carol needed Kathy more than she was willing to admit, and while her trauma had passed, the two had grown close. The relationship was a mixed blessing; a crutch in the worst of times that Carol felt compromised her independence. While Kathy agreed, neither of them were willing to part with the other.

She rode down Oakton’s packed main-streets at a crawl. The cluttered roads sandwiched between high-rises and skyscrapers of downtown were sprinkled with low-roofed, single story buildings here and there. Her mind flitted over her past as the cab gathered speed and the buildings turned to a blur of neutral hues.

Despite a heavy lock on its mental imagery, her past had been especially relevant lately. Unfortunately, their case as Prosecutors on behalf of the State was much worse than Carol’s own victim testimony had been. The several young women kidnapped and raped, had been murdered. Unlike Carol, the victims had never escaped their captor, faced him in court to point the finger at him. She would have never considered her experience lucky until now.

Her stomach churned at the thought. Spurred emotions aside, her past had caused unwanted inquiry from her boss when he asked whether or not she would like to recuse herself from the case. Like the others in the office, he knew her history. In a way, his concern was comforting, but it was too important to her to continue the case. She had faced her own accuser, helped to put him behind bars without chance of parole. The dead girls couldn’t do that, but Carol could. In a way, she was the only one left to do it for them.

Moreover, she refused to show such a weakness so early in her career. These cases were the reason she became a lawyer. She wasn’t going to allow any of these sick bastards to roam free: a determination that had driven her through through law school, then from intern to junior partner. She wasn’t about to let her goal hold her back, no matter how gruesome the facts were.

The cab turned from the main streets into the suburbs. Old town houses jam-packed like cookie-cutter formed dough on a pan lined the streets with barely enough space between them to park a vehicle. Carol’s eyes scanned the area, came to a rest on a distant point as her mind raced onward.

Though cases like these were usually left to the state, a recent change in Ohio’s law made it possible for private firms like Carol’s to act as proxies. Provided a firm applied for review and certification, and passed, the State would relegate case in exchange for tax breaks. Despite mild outrage over the controversial process, it allowed struggling firms to pull themselves up little by little. It was a two-fold gain; the State was able to process cases faster where there was too much crime, and the firms were able to stay in business where too many lawyers had flooded the market place.

Despite their past reputation, Carol’s firm was one of those struggling minorities. There was simply too much competition to go around, a fact that never ceased to be humorous to some. There were too many legal vampires for them to feed equally. Even Carol saw the humor in it at times, but was otherwise too hungry. While her appetite for justice kept her sated when the office was forced to work patent law, review corporate contracts, or something equally innocuous, eventually it longed for her to return to her purpose. The Investigative Act, as it had come to be known, allowed her to continue fulfilling that purpose; legal attack dog for the weak and victimized.

The cab slowed to a crawl as Carol directed the driver toward Kathy’s two-story home and office, sandwiched between the other homes with their identical, two-story vertical climbs. Each one had exactly enough front and side yard to drag a trash can through, the “back-yard” was little more than a plot of cement and gravel.

She flashed a coded credit-card at the cabby’s electronic eye-reader on his dashboard, then stepped out into the afternoon. The cab rolled away with a bellow of the engine, headed for the faded brick and cracked paint of the front porch. The few, budding flowers that flanked the doorway still showed the darkened wetness from the chilly dew the night before.

Her hand rose for the bell, stabbed a finger at it. A moment later the door opened on Kathy’s late-fifties gray hair and bright eyes.

“Hey. Come on in,” she beckoned with a sweep of a hand.

Carol stepped up, in, moved from the small foyer and into the office. It spanned one-half of house’s length, a warm, corduroy couch against the back wall in the outcrop of a large, floor to ceiling bay-window. Carol took her seat on the far-right, popped off her heels to massage an achy foot. Kathy maneuvered her rolling chair over, took a quiet seat in front of Carol.

The formality of these sessions had relaxed over the extreme length of time Carol had attended them. By all rights, Kathy should have retired at least five years ago, but she had never felt comfortable with the idea.

Kathy sipped from a coffee mug, “Tired?”

“Very. Last brief told us there was little evidence aside from the last girl’s testimony. For a fair jury that would be enough. Or it used to be anyhow. Now when a teenage girl points fingers at someone with that much money, there’s no guarantees.”

Kathy expertly skirted the NDA, “Company man, huh?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Carol replied as she tensed a pair of fingers at the corners of her eyes. “There’s no doubt they’re paying off the local media ’til its over to keep things quiet.”

Kathy frowned, “That sounds rather corrupt.”

Carol’s hand fell to her side. She heaved a sigh, “The whole system’s this way. Short of stopping the trial to investigate the defense firm, there’s nothing we can do. The other side’ll always play dirty when they know their defendant’s guilty. And it’s not like there’s much we can do anyway. We’re swamped as it is. I’ve learned to pick my battles.”

“Is that how you feel? That this is a battle?”

Carol sat upright, waggled an accusatory finger, “Uh-uh, don’t you do that to me. I know when you’ve got your game face on.”

Kathy chuckled, “Occupational hazard. I’m curious though, do you really think he’s guilty, or is it your own experience condemning him?”

Carol swallowed hard, steeled her nerves against the bile in her gut. “I’ll admit it doesn’t help, but my experience tells me he is guilty, especially considering the girl’s testimony.”

“What is it that makes you so sure?”

“Aside from the teenage girl that’s testified he raped her? Well there’s the seven other families who’ve presented internet chat-logs, photographic evidence, and witness testimony that their daughters all had contact with the guy before they were found murdered.” Kathy nodded to herself. “It’s the type, Kathy. I know them. The guy’s got money and power, thinks it makes him immune– can do anything he wants. Usually, no matter what the anything is, his money’ll let him get away with it. I’ve seen a lot like him. They’re all the same, their vices just change.”

There was a certain, stoicism to Kathy’s voice, “I guess I can’t really argue with that logic.”

Carol’s shoulder slumped, “Money is power, especially in this game.” Her eyes fixed on a distant point with contemplation, “These wealthy, powerful killers? They never change.”

2.

It was roughly 1:15 when Carol sat in a wrap-around booth at the Fine Divine steakhouse across from uptown Oakton’s courthouse. Her boss settled beside her, the State Prosecutor on across from him on the booth’s far-side. The latter looked like a caricature of Pee-Wee Herman with a darker face, and sunken, purple eyes beneath his thick-rimmed glasses. He even wore the brown tweed and bow-tie all too familiar to the aforementioned star to complete the look.

The lunch was supposedly a formality, but Edward Mordin, her boss and the lead partner in the firm had shown up in his street clothes with a less than sunny disposition. Since the statehouse had begun reviews into its proxies, the firms contracted were subject to frequent intrusions such as this. Most of the time, it was a luncheon conference or a day-long conference with a State Prosecutor. Neither was the most pleasant experience, but Ed appeared even more aggravated than usual.

Lunch went smoothly, joined mid-way through by Carol’s intern, Sheryl Hunter. Twenty-eight and still in law school, she met them with the latest transcripts between the defendant and his attorney. Fortunately for them, in recent years the largely useless ring of government surveillance across the country had allowed for transcribed recordings from any and all criminal suspects in state and county prisons. The hope was that anyone guilty might slip up in front of their lawyers, bring a hasty resolution to the trial.

In truth, it had made things much more difficult for those that invoked it. The existing stigma against lawyers as society’s pariahs only worsened when Congress passed the necessary Constitutional amendments. Now, they were not only pariahs but also the number one source of intrusions on citizen privacy; ground-zero for the downfall of liberty. In practice, it was much more complicated, and only possible because of the existing surveillance infrastructure. Moreover, only public or government-offices and buildings were applicable. In fact, the surveillance network had long been entrenched and utilized by the FBI, NSA, DHS and countless other government acronyms. The difference was these entities were secretive, clandestine, and harder to track. Law firms were required to file extensive paperwork, register every action they took with the State and Federal governments. It made them easier to spot, painted targets on their backs as the Grim Reapers of privacy.

The defense had done well in keeping this case quiet though. For the most part Carol was thankful for that. A lynch mob forming in the public would make it harder for all involved, from the defense to the jury, Carol included.

Sherry slid into place between Carol and the Pee-Wee wannabe, shuffled through her briefcase, handed out manila file-folders. In his usual manner Ed had filled more than a third of the table with his files, the manila folders obsessively laid-out before him. The five foot long table was considerably smaller now that Ed’s obsessive-compulsiveness had reared its ugly head. Even Art Warren, the look-alike, scrunched back uncomfortably, as if fearful of disturbing the precisely arranged folders.

For a long while they discussed the trial, ethics and etiquette, while Ed downed glass after glass of fruity, feminine drinks with an out-thrust pinky-finger. The other three stuck to soda and water, ate small meals before Art finally announced his departure. He excused himself with friendly goodbye, and left to a grunt from Ed. Carol and Sherry relaxed, called over a waiter to order more drinks.

Ed seemed especially disgruntled, unusual for him after so many drinks, but all the more apparent when he suddenly switched to scotch.

It arrived in time for Carol to mask her sincere concerns with amusement, “What bug’s up your ass, Ed?”

A corner of Ed’s mouth lifted with a grunt, “Bastard.” He threw back a gulp of scotch. Carol exchanged a confused look with Sherry. Ed smacked his chops, belched, “DA’s called for a quick end to the trial. Says the jury’s gonna end up deadlocked if we don’t move fast. Too many of ’em think there’s not enough evidence. Sonsabitches think eight witness testimonies putting the creep with the girls aren’t enough anymore.” He took another slug of whiskey, “It’s those damn cop shows! Everyone want’s DNA now. Seven dead girls isn’t good enough? Bullshit!”

The level of scorn in Ed’s voice was unusual. His glassy eyes met Carols, her face blank, lost for words. Sherry spoke her sentiments aloud, “Wait, what’re you saying, Ed?”

His hand tightened around his rock-glass, “They want rehab now. DA’s callin’ for it, defense is callin’ for it– ‘N then that little pee-wee Herman fuck wants to lectures me on ethics? I been in business thirty years and this’ first time I’ve seen a jury so hung it could choke a horse. Seems like everyone’s on that bastard’s payroll.”

Rehab? That’s it?” Sherry asked, confounded. “For multiple counts of abduction, rape, and murder?”

Carol’s heart sank. Failure coursed through her as she stared into her drink. Ed’s voice intoned over her distant stare, “DA’s really fucked the poodle this time. We’re gonna get it for this one.”

For all of his candor, Ed had always held a passion for justice. Like Carol though, he’d begun to see the system was just as corrupt as the people he’d used it to put away. His real reason for drinking so heavily was obvious now; he needed the courage to tell Carol about rehab. He couldn’t face her otherwise; look in her eyes, tell her they’d failed, and the bastard was going to walk. Eight teenage girls, eight lives wasted, and eight families who’d get no justice. He couldn’t bare to a tell a former victim that– someone who could’ve been one of them– that he’d failed her.

When the sentencing came down, Carol sat in the court room, stone-faced. She stared at the man as he stood to be read his verdict. His black Armani was pressed just above his wrist and ankle shackles, the mockery of a line of justice visible between those barriers of fine black and tarnished steel. A smug satisfaction huddled over his brow as she burned his features into her mind. When the judge spoke, she heard nothing; only saw the slow creep of perfect, white-teeth that appeared over a dampened echo, as if her ears were submerged in water. The killer turned in slow-motion, his dark eyes met hers for a half-second above that sickly grin and those perfect, white-teeth.

He followed through in his turn to exit the courtroom. Carol watched, muttered to herself, “I’ll get you yet, you son of a bitch.”

3.

A year passed with little incident. Sherry’s graduation and promotion to Junior partner added her full-time into the fold, while Carol’s once, unshakable faith in the system continued to degrade at its usual rate. By now it seemed nearly non-existent, and whenever the subject of that fateful trial was broached, Ed became passive, quiet, still unable to look her in the eye without the aide of copious amounts of alcohol. His guilt became static in their relationship, something he tried to compensate for with large bonuses, pay raises, and her choice of clientele.

Her usual, Wednesday routine to see Kathy remained unchanged, and today the street near her home-office was especially busy. In the early afternoon of the spring’s mild-warmth saw the annual shift from heavy, winter gear to T-shirts, light jackets, even a pair of shorts or two. As a result, most of the block of pancaked, bi-level homes had signs of activity in or around them. Even Oakton’s Street Department had awakened from its winter slumber, began to fill the potholes along the road. The grizzled men in their work clothes and bright, fluorescent green vests clustered along the avenue only a few dozen yards from Kathy’s door

Carol flashed her card at the cabby’s electronic eye as usual, stepped out from the car. A jogger collided with her, toppled her to the ground as the cab pulled away. He recovered, apologized profusely. She did the same, gathered her things without a look.

He scooped up papers, straightened them atop folders, “Sorry. Sorry. Forgive me please, I wasn’t paying attention.”

Carol managed a chuckle, “It’s alright. I wasn’t either.”

He handed his pile over to her, he huffed a flustered breath, “You’re alright, right? You’re not hurt.”

She took the pages, thanked him with a look, “No, I’m fine.”

He smiled wide with perfect, white teeth, as he stepped to one side, “Sorry again.”

The perfect teeth forced a flash of memory from the distant trial, super imposed the perfect, white-teeth of that snake that had slithered away over the man’s. Her stomach lurched. The man apologized, oblivious, and excused himself to jog away. She muttered an garbled pleasantry. Turn autonomously to track him from Kathy’s property to the next. He continued without a look back, but the image blasted a shiver of ice through Carol’s spine. The man’s face disappeared into the overlaid image of the sick, sadistic smile from the courtroom.

Carol swallowed hard, dizzied and sweating. She swayed in a turn for the door, planted each step to it with a deliberate gait to keep upright. Her hand slapped the doorbell as her stomach upturned and her legs wobbled. Kathy opened the door with a casual smile that soured at her pale green pallor. She urged Carol in, guided her away from the door. The foyer and office morphed into one another through vertigo-laden vision. The world gyrated, swirled around her. Her heart raced, panicked, chest tightened, incapable of drawing breathing. A vise had ensnared it, forced it nearer her back.

She was only vaguely aware of Kathy ushering her to the couch. A cool breeze blew from an open window, coursed over cold-sweat that lined Carol’s body, caused a shudder that worsened the vertigo. A distant wind-chime clanged through the air, muffled by a haze of black infected by colors that swirled around it.

Time ceased to have meaning, only seeming to start again once the wind returned to her lungs over the indistinct sound of Kathy’s voice. A warm hand pressed at her forehead and cheeks, while the vertigo began to recede. She managed enough to ask for water, was obliged without question. Her mind focused enough to relay that she had laid down on the couch, was staring up at Kathy’s textured ceiling.

What the hell just happened?

She mentally retraced her steps, found the source of the spell at the man’s face. Dark eyes, not unattractive, but somehow irredeemably repulsive.

Kathy appeared with water, “Sip it, or you’ll make yourself more sick.”

Carol muttered a weak “thank you,” as she sat up to sip from the glass. The ill feelings swirled within her, their cause unknown.

It was a few moments of deep, slow breath’s later that Kathy finally sensed she could speak, “You’re not high are you?”

Carol’s brow furrowed, “What? No. Why would you even–”

“If you are it’s okay, but I have to–”

“I’m not high, Kathy. I don’t…” Carol took a breath. “I don’t know what the hell happened.”

“It’s okay, Carrie, I believe you. But you know if you ever feel you need that you can–” She cut herself off from the glare on Carol’s face. “Oh alright. What’s wrong then?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know.”

“Symptoms?” Kathy asked, formally.

“Vertigo, shortness of breath, sour stomach– but it all came on so fast, I thought I was going to faint.”

“You nearly did. What d’you think caused it?”

She sighed with a shake of her head, “Like I said, it happened so fast.”

“Could be a hypoglycemic episode. How’s your diet been lately?”

“It’s not that– you know how I careful I am with my health,” She sipped a few times from the water glass, “Antacids?”

“I’ll get ’em.” She rushed off once more, returned with a pair of chalky tablets. She handed them over, re-took her seat, “Retrace your steps. Walk me through the few minutes before it started.”

Carol drank from the glass, swallowed and sighed, “I was at the office, took a cab over like usual, and was fine until some guy bumped into me on the street.”

“Think he dosed you with something, somehow?” She asked, concerned.

“No, nothing like that. I was fine until…”

She trailed off: Could it really be true? No. It couldn’t. It was her imagination playing tricks on her. After all, the one year anniversary of the trial was this week, and it had been heavy in her mind.

Kathy interrupted her thoughts, “Until?”

“Well, it was… odd,” she said over thoughtful stare. “He was nice enough. Polite, but… something about his eyes. They were… familiar. And his smile– full of perfect teeth.”

Kathy joked, “Sounds like a looker to me. Maybe it was love at first sight.”

“No. He repulsed me– to my core. He reminded me of– well, of that sonuvabitch that got away last year.”

Kathy’s humor disintegrated, “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

She hesitated a moment, then sighed, “Honestly Carrie, this sounds like you’re ascribing your… distaste for that particular man onto others with his features.” Carol eyed her skeptically. Kathy explained, “It’s not uncommon. A lot of ex-wives could tell you that– “’I’ll never date a man with brown hair again, or never marry another green-eyed man.” Men do it too, “I’ll never let another blonde into my bed again.” Anyway, trust me when I say it’s more common than you think.”

Carol wasn’t satisfied, but gave a slow, defeated sigh, “I don’t know, maybe. I mean, you’re probably right, but it just didn’t feel that way. It… felt like I was looking into those same cold eyes, getting that sadistic smile bared at me again, just like that day in court… when they gave him Rehab.”

Kathy was sympathetic, but there was a rigidity to her tone that said her opinion was fixed, “But it was his eyes and smile that did it, right? Not the rest of him?”

She shook her head, “No.”

“Did he resemble the… other man in any other way?”

Another shake of her head, and a sigh, “No, not that I could tell.”

Kathy grimaced, “Then it’s probably like I said, and you’re putting too much thought into it. Just relax, and sip that water.”

Carol gave an absent nod, took another drink. Her stomach had finally begun to settle, but an eerie foreboding frothed beneath the fine layer of antacids. She pinched at the corners of her eyes, forced back the memories of that sadist’s smile in the mockery of a court-room.

4.

At Kathy’s insistence, Carol called the office to take the rest of the day off. Sherry was less than enthusiastic, now stiffed with new paperwork for a defense they were working on. After being told of Carol’s episode– and promised a free night out– Sherry relented. Carol conveniently left out the episode’s trigger, but Sherry was satisfied all the same.

Carol hailed a cab back to her house, unlocked the door and entered the house to her slobbery Pit-bull Terrier, Buddy. He gave a few, deep barks, bounced excitedly and pawed at her legs. His tail wagged behind his torso that circled her path down the hall to the kitchen and two, French doors.

“Come on, Budd.”

He lagged behind her as the door opened. Then, a rush of spring air poked his muzzled and his ears perked up. He rocketed outside ahead of her. She followed him down the trio of steps to the patio-deck, sank into a patio chair to stare off while he made his rounds through the yard.

She tried to push the day’s events out of her mind, kicked up her feet to let the breeze flutter at her at cheeks and tousle her stray hairs. What the breeze didn’t cool, the afternoon sun kept warm. It was a welcome release from the harsh, gray cold that dominated Oakton’s winter months. Her eyelids parted to cotton-white clouds that she vaguely recalled as cumulus.

Buddy’s nails clacked in a trot along the wooden deck, startled her. He plopped onto his haunches beside her while his tongue dangled out the side of his mouth.

She leaned over, kissed the top of his head, “Good boy, Buddy.”

He gave her a lick, stood to lead him inside, and carry on with her normal, after-work routine. She filled Buddy’s bowls, washed her face, and changed to her street clothes to plop comfortably onto the couch, flip on the TV. The digital channels passed casually, stopped on Info-Corp’s News Network with the hope that Carol might see a favorable media fare to their case.

Like many others, this client was high-profile and a perpetrator of drunk-driving. The wealthy-retiree managed to hit a parked car before he careened into an intersection and oncoming traffic. His excessive speed twisted the van he hit into his sports car, left them as little more than useless hunks of steel and plastic. OFD had to cut both drivers from their vehicles; the man walked away with a few broken bones, but the woman was now in rehabilitative therapy with a broken back.

While the doctors said she would recover to walk again, it just so happened that she was sister-in-law to the mayor. It was ultimately impossible to avoid jail-time, especially given the forthcoming Mayoral election. On word of the crash, the Mayor’s campaign immediately shifted to a crackdown on drunk drivers to gain public support– never-mind the half-dozen murders each day, or the countless pick-pockets and other thefts.

The TV flashed commercials to a sigh from Carol. Buddy lumbered atop the couch, put his head on his paws to stare out at the flashing pictures on the screen.

“What are we gonna do with this world, Budd?” Carol said aloud. He whimpered, rolled sideways to expose his belly. She gave it a scratched, muttered, “I guess that’s a solution.”

Info-Corp’s jingle played as the news returned. The overtly charismatic man began his spiel at a moderate speed, never pausing for longer than it took to breathe. “Turning to local business news; today Allen contractors was bought out by DePaul contracting LLC. The emerging construction company seems to be an overnight success story for its owner Anthony DePaul.”

Carol looked up just in time to see a photographic expose of a man’s life. She watched on, entranced, the images chronicled the life of a familiar face– the one she had seen earlier in the street. His dark eyes and pearly-white smile burned into her retinas with the familiar rush of a curdled stomach. This time though, the sounds muffled seemed to highlight the televisions words.

“Anthony DePaul, thirty-eight, inherited a modest fortune from a dying relative,” The anchor said. Old, color photos of a young boy gave way to a young man, then finally, the adult man she’d met, “With a generous dose of foresight, DePaul put the money to good use in creating a construction company with a vision to change Oakton’s scenery.”

Carol’s head began to spin. The expose shuffled through images of office-buildings and construction equipment, “In just under two months DePaul Contracting saw profits in excess of three million dollars. DePaul publicly attributes this success to quote, “dumb luck and knowing the right people.” In the last nine months, the small construction company has grown by triple that, leading to the acquisition of Allen contractors after it had fallen on hard times. Mr. Depaul had this to say:”

Carol couldn’t move, or think, or even look away. She was gripped by pain, terror. Acid rose into her throat, the ivory-white teeth moved in a mockery of her pain while the dark eyes softly scanned the crowd of a press-conference.

“It is my esteemed pleasure,” DePaul said cheerfully. Carol’s insides rolled. “To make this company a part of the DePaul family. As promised, all employees will be held to their original contracts. As you know Allen is an old company, and a well respected name, and speaking as a laborer, I’d hate to see that name lost.” There was a pause, a break in the reel where it jumped to another question. “My intent is purely to help our weakened economy. It’s on all of us, as business owners and citizens, to ensure we keep jobs available and money coming in. In acquiring Allen, I hope to see that–”

Carol heard nothing more. She slumped forward, felt vomit rise. Buddy whimpered. Carol stumbled around the couch, sprinted with a hand over her mouth to the bathroom. The cold porcelain chilled her hands and face as she heaved in a stupor. The fire in her throat and pores reveled in a cold draft from the open door.

She wanted to crawl into the tub, ball up and die. The pain in her stomach and throat forced her eyes shut and clenched against tears that squeezed out. Panic gripped her. Her mind ran hurdles along a gauntlet of hypochondria; she was being drugged, poisoned, slowly gassed or…

Something was wrong. She knew it, felt it, but couldn’t place it. The expose replayed in her mind, triggered a final, dry heave. She gave a loud sob, her tears streams along her pale cheeks. Buddy appeared, barked in alarm. The expose refused to stop. It played a dozen times at high speeds, followed by her episode in the street. Violent shakes seized her arms and legs. Her head snapped from side to side, neck twisted and writhed with attempts to throw the images from her mind.

Without volition, her fists balled. Her knuckles whitened. The images began to superimpose atop one another. With a mounting speed, the man’s face followed childhood to manhood, ended with a grip of unassailable fear as a final, translucent overlay of a second-man’s face appeared. The features were distinctive, similar; a protruding brow, boyish cheeks, dark hair, and full white teeth. Worst of all, were the cold, dark eyes whose orbits perfectly matched those of the other man.

The second man was Zachary Evans, the killer she’d failed to prosecute, the same one given Rehab in place of life-long prison cell or a deserved death sentence. There were obvious differences– chin, nose, hairline, each one thinner. Somehow though, Carol knew; they were the same man.

She crumpled to the floor, exhausted, stared up at her ceiling. Buddy’s hot breaths against the floor were the only sounds audible. Even so, she didn’t notice it. Her mind was too focused, too preoccupied with piecing together the puzzle before her. Her stomach and throat burned from acid, limbs ached from residual tremors that vibrated her body.

Why was this happening? What did these two men have in common? Was it really Evans or was Kathy right; had she displaced hatred for one man onto another? No. No, it couldn’t be that simple. She couldn’t put it all together yet, pieces of the puzzle were still hidden, but it couldn’t be another man. She knew it wasn’t. So what was happening? Were Evans and DePaul really the same person? How?

She didn’t know the answers to her question, but she knew she had to find them. These two episodes had been radically different. The first was bad enough, but the second was like a textbook cocaine overdose. If the last two episodes’ progressions were any inclination of what she could continue to expect, the next one could very well kill her.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

10.

Carol awoke the next morning to a skull-splitting hangover. Her limbs were lethargic, heavier than usual. She could already sense her shortened fused. Sherry still snored from the couch, Buddy now across the room, splayed out between the coffee table and television. Carol reset the recliner, sat upright to hug her head. A murky version of the night returned, the day before it frightfully clear.

During their binge, Carol had silently resolved to seek out DePaul. She wasn’t sure what to do or say, but she would wake Sherry, inform her, then attempt to find a way to DePaul. Carol fell to her feet, shuffled to the kitchen with Buddy groggy at her heels. She let him out the door, made her coffee, then woke Sherry. After a fashion, they discussed her decision over a cup of coffee.

While he was well known, DePaul wasn’t a celebrity like Evans had been. He’d be relatively easy to contact; a business man for hire that they could meet under a false pretense. In the meantime, Carol hoped to discern the point to it. Babcock had said his patients retained none of their memories or personality. Carol had to be careful to test him without making him suspicious, find some way to discern if he’d truly been changed.

The ride to Sherry’s to shower and re-dress was infected with yawns and Buddy’s whimpers in the truck’s back seat. It was a risk taking him along with his weak stomach, but Carol felt more comfortable cleaning up barf than leaving him alone. The brief intermission at Sherry’s was followed by a stop at a fast food joint for more coffee.

Sherry inched them along the drive-through’s queue while Carol’s eyes rose absently to the side-view mirror. A blue sedan maneuvered into a space a few cars back, the man in it only just visible. Her eyes narrowed, the truck rolled forward. Sherry’s voice sounded, honed Carol’s vision. She grappled a coffee handed to her, suddenly recognized the car: She’d seen it at the rehab center just outside the city. The man inside was on his cell-phone again, as he had been when she’d first seen him.

She spoke at a hush as Sherry cranked up her window, “Someone’s following us.”

“What? Where?”

“Don’t make it obvious. The blue Ford, five o’clock.”

Buddy’s ears perked up in the back seat. He sniffed at the air, caught their scent, began to whimper louder. Sherry pulled forward, took her time to let the car follow. She adjusted the side-view mirrors with a subtle hand, pulled onto the avenue.

With a clear view of the restaurant’s exit, they rolled into the far lane, stopped at a light. The sedan reappeared, hesitated. The light changed, the truck started forward. The sedan waited a moment longer, eased out into the morning traffic to settle a quarter-mile behind them. Carol gave a few, precise directions, weaved them in and out of traffic. The sedan fell in line behind them, weaved carefully, disappeared again only to emerge moments later, nearer by. Carol tested the car, made errant turns for no discernible destination.

Sherry was agitated, her knuckles white over the wheel, “What should we do?”

“Can Mike help?”

“I doubt it,” she replied, her voice higher than usual. “Even if he could, I don’t think he’d want to be involved in this.”

Carol surveyed the gridded streets; there were plenty of places to park, leave the truck to hide in. On the other hand, Buddy couldn’t follow them, and she wasn’t going to leave him behind. Moreover, hiding only prolonged the inevitable. Whoever followed them likely had orders from someone, possibly even knew where they lived. There could be no end without some confrontation.

The weight of the holstered pistol at her side comforted her, Buddy’s quiet, helpless whimpers swallowed little fear she had left. Her eyes closed on a mental layout of the city to study it. To the North was an old, abandoned train-yard that would give her room to move in– If the car followed them that far. The truck’s digital compass read out “NE” from below its rear-view mirror. Her mind raced, connected her destination to a side road ahead.

“Make a left.” Sherry’s face rippled with confusion. “Just trust me, make the turn.”

Sherry winced, maneuvered the truck off the four lane avenue onto a smaller, two lane side-street, “Wanna’ clue me in here?”

“Not yet.”

The truck’s compass shifted to “N.” They kept forward, moved with the speed limit through sparse traffic that revealed the car behind them still followed. They were blocked on either side by high office buildings, but would soon pass through older, residential districts before the road made a ninety-degree left. She tried to map the road in her mind; the turn would lead them north-west, then the road Teed off. A right at the T, then a left, and another into the train-yard.

She watched the sedan, “Right.”

They turned, the sedan disappeared. A moment later it curved onto the road behind them. She glanced at Buddy in the rear-view mirror; he moaned, fidgeted. She knew the behavior well, encountered it each time they headed for the Vet. This was different though, more intense. All of his instincts told him to run. She sympathized.

She looked to Sherry, directed them through the next left. The train-yard began to sprawl out beside them. Sherry’s knuckles and fingers had turned purple. Obvious terror formed sweat on her forehead and upper-lip. Carol winced. She didn’t blame Sherry for her fear, she was a twenty-eight year-old, sex-fueled workaholic used to the fast paced, metropolitan lifestyle. She could’ve never been prepared for this, doing what they had to survive, right wrongs. For that matter, Carol wasn’t sure she was any different, but had led them here all the same.

“Left,” Carol directed at the yard’s small access road, the sedan far behind on the empty road. “Carrie?” She squeaked.

“Pull in to one side. If he follows us in, we’ll pull forward, block him off at the gates.”

Sherry’s sweat doubled, her face drained of color beneath the oily sheen. Carol’s violent reaction and confrontation with Babcock had struck too quickly for Sherry to react. This time it had been a slow slow build that allowed her nerves to get the best of her. Buddy’s whimpers didn’t help. Carol reached back with a hand, rubbed Buddy’s muzzle without turning. She couldn’t afford to alert their pursuer.

They rolled along the short entrance to the train-yard, the chain gates wide open with one half hanging from its hinges. It rolled past the passenger window. Sherry immediately veered right, parked parallel to the gate. They would have precious, few seconds to block the man in once Carol gave the word.

The truck came to a rest beside an outcrop of stacked box-cars that lined a rusty, barbed-wire chain-link fence. The yard was massive, a maze of rusted steel and worn rail-roads with stacks of weathered ties every few hundred feet. Carol’s heart pounded, her breath ragged. Buddy flattened himself against the seat, each breath a high wheeze of terror.

Carol soothed him, “Quiet down, Buddy. Please.

He went silent, albeit not without a reservation in his eyes. Carol slouched in her seat, made herself as difficult to spot as possible. Sherry followed, her breath laden with fear, terror. Her hands tight, purple fists.

Five minutes passed, then ten. No car appeared.

“M-maybe he’s out there, w-waiting for us,” Sherry stammered at a whisper.

Carol rolled in her seat watch see truck’s rear through the side-view mirror, “Maybe. Either way, we wait.”

Fifteen minutes and Carol was disheartened; twenty and she already had another trap planned. She wasn’t giving up, letting this man try to silently hound them. Before she had threatened the doctor, she wouldn’t have given his presence a second’s thought, but she sensed more at work now. They’d arrived at the first rehab center with the man already tailing them. Someone had wanted them followed even before they’d learned the truth, there was no reason for them to stop now. She suspected someone had intercepted Mike’s request for DePaul’s records, had been watching for any inquiries about him– someone on the inside.

How high does this go?

Carol moved to speak, suddenly stopped. A movement in the mirror caught the corner of her eye as a man inched his way toward the rear of the truck. They flattened further, invisible, but Carol caught a glimpse of him. His shoes crunched gravel, headed away from the truck, but she didn’t hear it. She was caught in utter shock.

Son of a bitch!” Carol spit at a hush.

“What? What’s going–”

“Back the truck up, but stay in it.”

She threw open the door, drew her pistol. The truck started as the pistol’s sights zeroed in on the man’s head. He turned, startled by the noise. Carol’s teeth ground together.

“You son of a bitch!”

It was Art Warren, the state-man that dealt with Ed and Chuck– the one that so peculiarly resembled Pee-Wee Herman in his tweed and bow-tie. Both gone now, replaced by fresh-pressed khakis and a windbreaker over a button-up shirt. Even the Brylcreem slick in his hair had been washed away to a spiked, jet blackness.

“Warren, you son of a bitch! Talk!” She yelled.

He cocked a smug grin, shouted back, “What makes you think I’ll tell you shit? The gun? You won’t fire it.”

He began to step forward in time with Carol. She fired a round into the ground in front of him. He flinched, smacked by gravel that dusted the air.

Carol’s steps were slow, deliberate, “What the hell’s going on! What’re you doing here?”

The state-man shook off the shock, resumed his steps to continue closing the distance. He no longer needed to shout, “Yeah, big girl with a gun. Didn’t really think you’d make off with those files so easily, did you?”

Carol made a mental calculation, the gun at eye-level. A single bullet whizzed past his left ear, ricocheted off an over-turned rail-car and into oblivion.

Warren froze, his smug superiority fell away to a shaky calm, “What d’you want to know?”

“Who the hell are you?” Carol said as the truck’s door opened and shut behind them. Sherry stepped for her side as Buddy woofed and howled in the truck. Carol judged the situation, awaited the man’s reply. By his smugness, it was clear he was armed. His only problem lay in accessing his weapon. It was clear between them that she wouldn’t miss again, but Sherry was in danger now. On top of that, Buddy was an easy target. If she lost the upper hand, some one would die.

He took a few steps forward, and Carol’s aim landed on his head, “Close enough.”

Sherry squinted beside her, refused to believe her eyes, “Pee-wee!? Art? You’re following us?”

He considered his options, replied in earnest, “Leon Greene.”

“Who d’you work for?” Carol demanded.

“When I’m Art Warren, it’s the Ohio State Government. Unfortunately, public service doesn’t quite pay well enough, so Leon Greene takes some matters into his own hands.” His eye twitched, “But does it really matter? You can’t expect to walk away from this.”

“It matters to me.” Carol said, her aim steady. “I’ll offer you the same deal I gave Babcock; you tell me what I need to know, I’ll let you go.”

He considered it with a tilt of his head, “It’ll only add to your confusion, send you in the wrong direction. But I’ll give you what you want.” Carol allowed him a few steps forward, “Your bosses aren’t the philanthropists they appear to be, but they’re more opportunists than they let on.”

Confusion trickled into the back of Carol’s mind, “I need more.”

“What the hell’s he talking about?” Sherry whispered.

Greene took another step, spoke casually, “Mordin and Henderson employ me under the table to … clean up, their messes.”

Carol finally saw the last, hidden pieces of the puzzle revealed. She still wasn’t certain how they fit together, but at least now she could affix them given enough time. Greene’s words lent a certain kind of sense to her bosses’ success in such a weakened economy. If they had major investments on the side that Greene kept track of, was involved in while retaining his hand in state affairs, the firm would receive as many deferrals as it would need while for the firm to avoid formal inquiry. In the meantime, Ed and Chuck would be getting rich off whatever it was they’d invested it. The only thing left was how the rehab centers fit in to it. She gathered Greene wouldn’t know that.

“So you’re… what, some sort of spy?” Sherry asked.

“I suppose you could call me that, I consider myself more a P-I.”

“Pee-Wee Herman gag’s a bit much,” Carol scoffed.

Sherry agreed, “Yeah, makes you stick out, not blend it.”

He laughed, “You’d think so wouldn’t you? Fooled you though.”

“This is ridiculous,” Sherry said dismissively. She shot a look at Carol, “You really believe Ed and Chuck’re behind all of this?”

Carol’s grip on the gun tightened, “How do I know you’re not lying?”

Greene shot her a disappointed look, “You question it now? After you’ve already figured it out?”

She blinked off the ridicule, “I need evidence. Physical proof.”

“I can’t give you it,” he said earnestly. “But I’d assume its not to hard to find, if you know what to look for.”

Carol eyed him, “What’re you saying?”

His head bobbed subtly as he explained, “This kind of operation’s not something you make public, but it’s also not something you keep track of without leaving a trail. I assure you it won’t be hard to find. There’ll be paperwork, ledgers, computer files. I’d start there.”

He was right, she knew it. The evidence would be simple enough to find now. Ed and Chuck both suffered various levels of obsessive compulsiveness, a disorder that required they keep meticulous details of every thing in their lives. It was a curiously fortunate coincidence that had originally brought them two together as friends. Now, it would undoubtedly condemn them, reveal their involvement in the rehab program. There friendship may have even been the catalyst to their schemes.

While some things still required an explanation, she was satisfied with Greene, would keep their deal, let him go.

“Drop your gun on the ground, and go.” He reached for it under his jacket. “Other hand. Good. Slow.” It fell to the ground. He stepped forward. “I ever see you again, and I won’t hesitate. Get lost.”

Sherry returned to the truck, pulled away from the gate. Greene stepped within arm’s reach of Carol as she lowered her gun.

“I trust you won’t say anything to either of them,” she said, eyeing him.

He gave a laugh and smiled, “Wouldn’t dream of it. I’ve been waiting for this cluster-fuck to blow up in their faces for years. Always thought I’d go down with them…. Guess not.”

“We’ll see.”

His smugness returned, “I know.” He explained, “My name won’t come up, and even if it does, I’ll be gone. I got paid well and that’s what mattered.” He stepped away, “Good luck.”

She holstered her pistol, “What if I need more?”

“You won’t,” he shouted as he disappeared past the gate.

Carol sighed, retrieved Greene’s pistol, and returned to the truck. She handed it to Sherry, pointed to a lever on one side, “Safety on.” She flicked the lever. “Safety off.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Just don’t aim it at any of us and you’ll be fine. I’ll help you learn.”

She attempted a weak smile, “Okay, whatever you say.”

Sherry backed up from the train-yard, Greene and his sedan already long gone. Carol scanned for him, sensed their deal would be kept.

“We need to find Ed and Chuck,” she instructed.

“Ed’ll be home, and Chuck’s probably at the office getting ready for tomorrow.”

A corner of Carol’s eye twitched, “Let’s go see Chuck then.”

11.

It was past noon when they made it to the office, the traffic heavy from the lunch-time rush. Even so, Chuck would be there until late into the afternoon as he laid out neat stacks of files for the coming week, combed the surfaces with white, latex gloves for any dust the cleaners had missed. It had been his Sunday routine longer than Carol had known him.

Suddenly, the thought now about what she may have to do bubbled within her. She’d never known Ed or Chuck to carry a weapon, but she’d also never known either of them to be amoral businessmen who stole lives and released monsters onto the streets. In fact, that was the polar opposite to what she knew them to be. Everything about this seemed out of character– an assertion she was forced to question as they made their way through the vacant lobby for the office.

Would Chuck be waiting for them? Had Babcock or Greene betrayed her? Could she trust, if things went South, that Sherry would be prepared for the worst?

They reached the office door, the firm’s name stenciled on its frosted glass. The radio inside was muffled behind it, near-silent given the thoughts that rampaged through their minds. They looked to one another, uneasy. Carol reached for the knob, hesitated, but Sherry nodded her onward. The door was thrown open wide, Carol’s pistol out in a flash. Chuck stumbled backward into his chair with a pant, surprised.

“Christ, Carrie you scared the hell outta–” He stopped short at the sight of the gun in her hand. “What’s this all about?”

“You tell me, Chuck,” she growled.

Her head was tilted down at an angle with a vicious, primal fury. It infected Chuck’s veins with ice. He shuddered, sighed. He knew it now– why she had come. With a speed she thought him incapable of, he reached beneath his desk. In a flash, metal gleamed, rose. Her gun echoed a single round that slammed his heart. The revolver flew sideways, hit the floor with a thud. Chuck slumped back, already dead.

Carol was cold, empty. Her eyes were narrow beyond a barrel that still smoked before her. Sherry turned sideways, doubled over, and vomited into a trashcan. Carol ignored it, moved to Chuck’s body to rifle through his pockets for his house keys.

She turned for the door, “Come on, we need to finish this.”

Sherry dry-heaved, groped her way up the wall to her feet, “You…. you–”

She hesitated at the door without a look back, “I killed him. He’s dead and this building’s empty until tomorrow. We need to go, finish this before it gets worse.”

“Carrie, I-I.. don’t know if I can… do this anymore.”

Sherry’s eyes were tilted down, avoided Chuck’s body, his blood still wetting his button-up shirt. Carol looked at her, “Sheryl, you have to understand what’s at stake here. If he’d have killed me for knowing, he’d have killed you too. You saw what happened. It was self-defense, my right.”

A tear began to slide down Sherry’s face. Carol watched it, numb to its attempts at stinging her. In the beginning, she’d drawn strength from Sherry’s persistence and support. Now, Sherry was hollow, too terrified for anything more than the autonomous regulation of her body. Somehow, Carol was still strong, as though the strength had transferred from one to the other imperceptibly. Sherry was haggard, pale, as if too long without sleep.

“C’mon, we’ve gotta’ go.”

Sherry ambled mindlessly from the office, followed Carol back to the truck. When they arrived at Ed’s house, she handed over Chuck’s keys, “If I don’t make it, you have to finish this.”

Sherry nodded, incapable of making eye contact. Carol began the short trek from the street to the doorway, thirty-feet and a million miles to her racing mind.

Why do this? What was the purpose behind all of it? Was it really just money? And what did Greene mean about being an opportunist?

She wasn’t sure, but she knew the last of her answers lay behind the gold-trimmed, maroon door, of Ed’s red-brick house. Whether he gave them to her, or she pried them from his cold, dead hands, was up to him.

She stepped to the door, ready to kick it in, tried the knob first. It was unlocked. A strange sensation flooded her as she stepped inside, pistol at the ready. The faint aroma of whiskey clung to the air. She listened carefully, heard nothing. She stepped right, toward the dry bar and recreation room, her feet light on the hardwood floor.

“You don’ ‘ave to creep around in here, Carrie,” Ed slurred across the room.

He was drunk enough that his smell burned her nostrils even at the distance. She raised her pistol, watched him gulp from a half-empty bottle.

“’M unarmed Carrie. ‘Nless you… cosider thiss-sshit a weappn.” He raised the bottle, chugged. Carol was silent, her feet planted, legs braced, and the pistol high, steady. “Well? What the fuck’re ‘ya waitin’ for?” He bellowed, flung to and fro from the force of his words.

In all her years of dealing with Ed’s occasional drunkenness, she’d never seen him in such a state. It was obvious he knew her intent, knew she’d learned of the rehab program. That much would’ve was assured after they’d been followed between the rehab centers. She thought for a moment, her eyes on the drunken husk of a man.

She lowered her pistol, holstered it to step forward.

His drunken sway worsened, “What? Whadda’ya–”

She charged, slammed him backward. The bottle flew as he was knocked to the floor. His head hit the floor with a loud thud that morphed into a cry. She balled the hardest fist she could, straddled his chest. He struggled to breathe against her weight, drunk, confused.

She struck him– once more. Then three times. Four.

She lost count. Her fists pummeled his face. Ed was too dazed and drunk to struggle, barely able to breathe. She was far from killing him, but began to shout.

“You prick!” She screamed with a blow. “Bastard… Backstabbing… Son of a bitch…”

Tears streamed from her eyes. Her hands ached, bruised, bloodied from gashes on them and fresh wounds on Ed’s face. An unassailable sadness melded with her anger.

She struck harder, “I trusted you! You let him go! All these years! I-I trusted… you…”

Her anger exhausted with her strength. She fell to his side, wept into her hands. Ed had been a second father– albeit a distant one. Though she never voiced it, she trusted Ed to aid her in her crusade. Her entire life’s work and purpose had been to save women from men like Evans. Now her greatest ally, closest friend, was even worse than the people she’d tried to put away.

In one simultaneous instant, she questioned all her hopes and dreams, recalled her deepest regrets and failures. She welled with anger and joy, sorrow and happiness, at all that she had aspired and succumbed to. Her heart and mind overloaded with guilt and loathing, love and happiness.

She reacted without conscious thought, felt the gun lift from her holster. She knelt over Ed, his face bruised and bloody, but his wounds superficial. He might yet live, but he might also die. The dilemma only worsened as the pistol pressed his forehead. The duality of life climaxed in her mind; success and failure, love and pain, good and evil. Each side tugged at her, forced her thumb down on the gun’s hammer. Her mind fought her heart’s pain and anger with steel logic as it questioned which action led to what consequence.

She’d already killed Chuck, but that was self-defense. This was murder, plain and simple. Was she ready to take that chance– become the person she’d fought so long and hard against?

The question echoed in her mind while her senses screamed at her, body ached from the convergence of dreams to nightmares. The couplet of bullet-trains collided at Mach speeds to explode, fog her vision as her finger slid over the trigger.

Her arms were locked, her body poised. The moment had come. It was up to Ed now.

Her body trembled, her voice shook, “Why?

The word echoed through her into a deafening silence that rang with the war-drum charge of her heart. Ed’s left eye was swollen shut from the beating, but his right focused on her beyond the barrel.

“No one… was ever supposed to know,” he replied quietly, sobered by the beating. He exhaled slow, his breathes labored from her weight. “Chuck and I felt the recession… started doing patent work on the side. One of the inventions that came in… was a machine, intended for memory loss. The client died before the patent was finalized. We took some capital, built it… We only had the best of intentions.”

Carol’s lip twitched. He’d chosen. She rose from his chest, the gun still poised on him. His breath returned. He pushed himself into a sit. She allowed it.

“It’s bad now, Carrie. I-I know that. But it… it wasn’t always this way,” he assured her. “When we first created the program, the state didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But they let us try it. All of the cons we experimented on… they were lifers looking for reduced sentences, parole.” He shook his head in disgrace, “The device failed so many times, left dozens brain-dead. Chuck and I pushed to keep trying. It was impossible not too. All we needed was to discern the specific regions of the brain that caused the behaviors. That was it.”

He hung his head, quiet for a moment. When he looked up again, there could be no doubt of his sincerity. Even so, it made Carol’s stomach churn, her skin crawl.

“It got out of hand. But one day… one day, something happened. It permanently erased the person’s mind, but kept them alive. They were child-like, docile– but alive!

Carol watched him with a knife in her chest. She wasn’t of anything more than its incise and his words.

“Babcock could tell you more about it, he was the… tech, guy. He learned how the machine had done it, manipulated the process. He learned how to read what chemical imprints meant which types of memories. It became mathematical, a formula we had to get right. We found something… something that differed between the genius and the layman. It was a certain set of chemical and genetic markers– the reason we’d failed so many times was its absence in those patients.” He swallowed hard, “It wasn’t long before Babcock was manipulating specific memories, wiping others to clean slates, creating new ones. I-I’d tell you how, but it’s too technical for me.”

She believed him; Ed could barely work his smart-phone most days.

A corner of her mouth twitched with spite, “How could you do it, Ed? How could you let Evans go?”

“I’ve had to let dozens of guys like Evans…go,” he admitted without remorse.

“How could you do it to me!” She spit, wounded.

“I didn’t do it to you, I did it to him— to all of them… for you.”

Vertigo overcame her. The room began to spin. His next words were muffled by a confounding guilt. Everything that had happened to Evans– all of the people whose lives had been taken from them– were taken because of her.

She hastened to a realization as the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Everything Ed had done for her, the reason he’d hired her, was a result of his own mental illness– the meticulous workings and rationalizations of a mind obsessed with his own crusade. He’d spent so many years repressing guilt for stealing lives, letting murderers, rapists, and pedophiles be reformed, that he used her past trauma as the reason and rationale for all of his victims. In due time, his “success” was endorsed by the state, country even.

Finally the fractal-like image was revealed in all of its complex and deluded splendor. The rehabilitation program, instituted by Ed and Chuck, had been a vision of grandeur and hope– stolen from someone much brighter and tainted by their lack of morality. They’d failed at making the machine work for its original intent, re-purposed it, and removed all claim to its moral responsibility in the process. After years of growing guilt, nightmares, and remorse, Ed found a victim he might redeem himself through.

But it all fell apart that day Ed met Greene in the restaurant just before Evans’ sentencing. He’d come in his usual disguise, but as a courier to inform Ed of Evans’ chemical markers. Ed’s redemption was impossible then, but he still needed to rationalize, keep his conscience clean. It suddenly became Carol’s repayment, and when Evans was reformed, his drunken binges began. Either consciously or not, he’d been drinking, waiting for either it to kill him or Carol to suss out the truth and finish him herself.

The spinning stopped. She pushed through her haze, tried to discern her next course of action, but couldn’t. Ed’s words continued on, incessant ramblings of rationalizations and justifications for the atrocities he’d committed– all in her name, to honor her. It made her sick.

With what little strength remained, she pushed herself up, stood over him. There was only one logical resolution; Ed was a criminal, mentally sick and amoral, but no less human. She wasn’t a murderer, but she wouldn’t allow herself to be a victim to anyone anymore, much less the scapegoat for a lunatic.

“Get up,” she ordered. He didn’t respond. She kicked his foot, holstered the pistol, “Get up god damn it!”

She drug him to his feet, got behind him to steer him, stumbling, out the door and to the truck. She threw open the doors as Buddy growled at his stench. She silenced him with a word, threw Ed into the backseat. He toppled in, once more adrift in a sea of drunken confusion. Sherry looked across the truck with a question on her lips, her face once more colored, but still oily, sweat-covered.

Carol shut the door, climbed in beside her, “Call Mike. We need to get him there before he comes out of it.”

They pulled away from the house, the front door still wide open. Sherry made her way through afternoon traffic to the police station at twice the posted limit. They fought to carry Ed up the steps, for him into an interrogation room and wait for him to sober up.

Mike met with the two women in the observation room beyond the interrogation room’s two-way mirror, “What the hell happened?”

For the first time since the day had begun, they looked at themselves. Sherry was unscathed, save for her exhaustion, but Carol’s clothing was disheveled, her hands and knees bloody, bruised. She looked frightening, as though she’d been at war for the last two days, had fought her way through the trenches to uncover the truth. In the small amount of time she’d been afforded rest, she’d chose instead to drink herself into a stupor. She wasn’t sure whether to be proud or sick with herself.

She decided she didn’t care, launched into retelling the events while Sherry corroborated. She’d be damned if she was going to let Ed skew the truth any further than he already had, made up her mind to come clean about everything, perfectly at ease with whatever consequences she might be due.

EPILOGUE

When attorneys Carolyn Switzer and Sheryl Hunter relayed their story to Detective Mike Boone, Carol took the blame for the death of Charles Henderson. Simultaneously, aspects of their story, corroborated by various parties (including Dr. Henry Babcock and Edward Mordin.) placed them at no fault in the use of The Ohio State Investigative Act. Edward later went on official record during the trial of State of Ohio V. Switzer and Hunter, testifying that he knew Henderson had stashed a loaded thirty-eight revolver beneath his desk. According to his testimony, it had been there since Zachary Evans had been sentenced to rehabilitation, placed in fear of retribution in the event that Carolyn ever discovered his secrets. Mordin also assured the court that Henderson kept the weapon loaded with the safety off.

To the surprise of everyone involved, Edward produced security tapes from hidden cameras secretly installed in the office, and went on record to say, he too, believed retribution might some day come, but suspected Henderson would make the first move. A series of cameras were placed at angles which gave full, 360 degree views of Henderson’s desk. When the tape was reviewed during the trial, it was immediately determined that although Switzer drew first, Henderson’s prior actions and his reaction therein, negated any charge of murder.

The case was dismissed following an innocent verdict on the charges of first and second-degree murder.

A subsequent trial, State of Ohio V. Edward Mordin revealed that the defendant had been guilty on fifty-four counts of first degree murder, and seventy-one counts of felony criminal battery against State Penitentiary inmates. On the advice of a separate, expert witness and testimony by one Carolyn Switzer, it was recommended that Edward Mordin be sent to an upstate, mental health facility for rehabilitative therapy and life imprisonment without chance of parole.

When the evidence of Ed’s actions came to light in open court, both Leon Greene and Doctor Henry Babcock were arrested and tried by attorneys appointed by the state’s deferment laws. The attorneys, on expert advice of witnesses Carolyn Swizter and Sheryl Hunter, sought the maximum sentence of criminal neglect and felony assault. Henry Babcock’s sentence was reduced on appeal however, when he gave up several, senior members of his medical staff to authorities. Each was subsequently tried and found guilty for criminal neglect and malpractice against some two hundred and thirty seven former rehab-patients.

The media’s field day summarily exposed the state’s rehabilitation program, shedding light onto a dark corner of the criminal justice system. The resulting public back-lash forced the specific form of therapy, known as Cognitive Reassignment Rehabilitation Therapy, to be suspended indefinitely despite its success. The US Supreme court later found CRRT to be unethical, instituting a nation-wide ban on its use. However, various rumored reports have relayed that its use has continued in secret both in and out of the United States.

As for the two women, having garnered fame and public praise from their revelation, they became sought out as high-profile attorneys. Their careers took off, allowing them to open their own practice, Hunter and Switzer Law. In addition, Detective Micheal Boone was awarded a Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor for his service and willingness to risk his reputation to fight injustice.

Shortly after the media-circus subsided, Anthony DePaul received the following letter from an anonymous source:

Anthony DePaul,

I send you this letter in the hopes that I may assuage my own guilt for actions against you; though they were never of my own accord, nor by my own hand.

It’s no doubt you’ve heard of the incident regarding Edward Mordin and Charles Henderson that resulted in the losses of memory in two hundred and thirty-seven criminals sentenced to CRRT by the state. All of the files have been released to the local police departments and FBI to be done with as they see fit, save an unknown two hundred and thirty-eighth victim.

This man, intentionally obscured by my hand, is Zachary Evans. His crimes were unspeakable in nature, copious, and cold. Mr. DePaul, I’m sorry to inform you that you were once this man. However, he died when you were born. Your memories are be fabrications, your personality manufactured, but they were done so to bring out the best aspects of your character, keep buried the worst. I tell you this because of an event that took place roughly two weeks before this all began; a woman bumped into you on the street, dropped her things and stammered like a fool. You were kind to her then, sincere and apologetic.

In that moment, I met you, Mr. DePaul. But in that moment, I also felt the specter of a man I loathed. The quest to understand led me to lay to rest a great injustice. It is for this reason, and this reason alone that I have kept your former self from the press. You have been given a second chance. One, I feel, you deserve because of the injustice done to you. You are Zachary Evans, but you are also Anthony DePaul. As the latter, you may live your life in blissful ignorance, or pursue what you will to know more of your former self. In either case, you will atone for the crimes of a past life, because it is ingrained within you to do so.

Enclosed is a flash-drive for you to keep or destroy. It contains all of the information on who you were. What you do from here on out is your choice, but believe me when I say, that to follow Evans’ path is to erase the soul you’ve been given.

I gained much more from our encounter on the street than a mere letter could tell. Now perhaps, you may gain as much in knowing that you were given a second chance, and have been living it to the fullest. I hope you continue to do so.

The files you hold are the only copies. No one can speak of Zachary Evans and link him to you. Please, for your own sake, destroy the file. I can not bring myself to do it and it is not my right to do so. I unintentionally wronged Evans, and in turn, you. Though his crimes were unspeakable, so too is the breadth of your chance to make up for them. I hope this atones for my part.

Anonymous.

Upon finishing the letter, DePaul removed the small drive. He stuffed the letter into the inside pocket of his jacket. In one, simple motion, he dropped the drive to the floor and smashed it with a booted heel. He keeps the letter on him to this day, intent on using every chance he has to atone for a past he cares not to remember.

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