He walked behind Gloria and followed her into a small room. Inside the room was a man he had felt before: a tall man in a cowboy hat, Metallica shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. This was the man who had banged a kid's head in the interrogation room. Bill knew the sheriff on sight. The sheriff stared at Bill with narrow, black, pinprick eyes. The glare carried feelings of mistrust and resentment.
There were three other people in the room: an older dark-skinned woman he assumed was a judge based on her robe, a pudgy balding man in a pair of khakis and a stained white dress shirt, and a young Asian man wearing a tailored black suit. The woman introduced herself as Judge Reneshia Dryer. The pudgy fellow was the prosecuting attorney, a man by the name of Chris Billings. The young man introduced himself as Thomas Lu, and explained that he was to be Bill’s lawyer.
Bill hardly noticed another man, a court reporter who sat in a shadowy corner until the slim little man cracked his knuckles.
“Why are we doing this in here, your honor,” the sheriff whined.
“To avoid a media circus, Sheriff Francis.” The judge sounded calm and bored. “Don’t be a dumbass.”
Sheriff Francis huffed, crossed a pair of thick hairy arms across his chest, and leaned back on the back two legs of his chair.
Thomas Lu stood up and patted Bill on the back as Bill slid into an empty chair. Bill felt the young man exude confidence, good-humor, and hopefulness. Bill smiled. It was nice to feel the touch of someone who the world had not yet completely tainted. Bill wondered how long the young man had been a lawyer.
Thomas whispered in Bill's ear, “Just relax. This is all a formality. Do what I tell you, and you’ll get to spend the afternoon at the beach with Gloria okay?”
Bill nodded and sat down. He listened to the people talk among themselves, but his mind travelled elsewhere. It kept returning to the severed foot and the little girl. He saw her struggling in his mind’s eye, and felt a dark shadow of despair filter through his mind. It all seemed pointless. A little girl was dead. What was going on could never bring her back.
Thomas Lu smiled as he spoke to the judge. The judge sighed as Thomas took some papers out of his briefcase. “My client is being held on purely circumstantial and flimsy evidence, and we’re just about to go past the allotted time for holding a suspect without formal charges. According to the FBI agents, just this morning, another child was murdered. How could my client have committed this crime if he was behind bars?”
“Maybe it was a copycat,” the prosecutor countered.
“That’s pure speculation at this point. At this point, all evidence still points to a single killer. There were certain … uhm … signatures left at the scene of the crime that have not been released to the media. A copycat would not know of those details, so that theory is impossible.”
Gloria nodded her head. “It’s true, your honor. This suspect cannot possibly be the killer.”
“Unless there’s more than one killer out there, Judge. Maybe he has a partner out there, you know?” The prosecutor looked over to Bill and cocked his head to one side. “Maybe they work as a team?”
“Speculation again. We can’t hold him indefinitely without charging him, and you can’t charge him without any evidence, your honor.”
“Mr. Lu’s right.” The judge put on a pair of reading glasses and read over the paperwork given to her by Bill’s young lawyer. She nodded her head. “This all looks in order. Seems fair.” She took the lid off a fountain pen and started signing papers. She looked up over her reading glasses to Bill. “You’re a free man, but you aren’t to go anywhere, you hear me? Don’t leave town. I see here you have no current, permanent address. Fix that.”
“Don’t worry, your honor. We have plans to keep a close eye on him.” Gloria looked over to Bill with a tight smile on her face.
He thought he knew what she meant and shuddered.
Sunlight angled down through the car window. It was warm and nice on Bill’s face. He looked out the window of the rental car and watched the Florida landscape pass by. Tall palms rose up out of the thick brush and swayed with unseen breezes as the unremarkable grey sedan rolled over the pockmarked and isolated road. Bill looked through the tangled wild on either side of the cracking cement and wondered what secrets and stories might be hiding in that wilderness.
“Bill, are you even listening to me?”
Bill shook his head and then looked forward to Gloria. She was turned around in the front passenger seat. Benny sat silent next to her in the driver’s seat. His large sunglasses reflected the road ahead.
She sighed, and a hint of a smile crossed her face. “You haven’t changed a bit, have you?”
Bill managed to make a weak smile himself. “I’m sorry. I’ve always been a bit of a drifter. At least in my thoughts, anyway.”
The fabric of the car rubbed against his skin and he felt nothing but cool professionalism there. This was a rental car, and the stories it told were routine and mundane: businessmen making appointments, that sort of thing. It was cold and cool and rather dull. The calm juxtaposed the heat of the day outside the car, and the new car scent contrasted sharply with the wild air coming in from outside through the air vents in the front of the car.
Gloria felt a lot like the car: cool, professional, a little boring. She had always wanted to be an agent. Bill had asked her to marry him once long ago. She had refused, said she wanted to make it through the academy first.
She made it, she had her dream, but Bill wondered to himself if she found it worth the reward? She was so professional now, so uptight. She was not the girl he remembered though she shared the same skin and bones and structure.
Gloria turned back around in her seat. “We’re about there. I’m sure once you see it you’ll fill in the blanks pretty quickly. Especially if your … uhm … talent is real.”
Bill reached forward and touched her forearm lightly with just the tip of his finger. The ridges of his fingerprint flirted against the fine blonde hairs on her forearm. The touch itself was almost immeasurable but still strong enough. He saw their break up from a different perspective (he always suspected he might have been a jerk), he saw her struggle through college and then the academy, saw her lonely nights, saw her spend her time in books and gyms and firing halls, he felt her awkwardness in informal conversations and blind dates set up by well-meaning acquaintances (she had few, if any, real friends), he saw much more but respected her enough not to bring those things up, not unless he had to. “Do you want me to prove it to you?” Bill asked.
Gloria pulled her arm away and shook her head. “It’s okay.” Her voice sounded shaken.
Benny slowed the car, turned the wheel to the left, and the cab lurched from side to side as they rolled down an unpaved dirt road that was little more than a trail. Mud splashed. Rocks scraped the exposed undercarriage as they moved slowly through the encroaching wilderness. A couple white-tailed deer darted across the road in front of them and were gone just as quickly, lost behind a veil of intertwining branches.
“We’re here,” Benny announced.
Even before stepping out of the car, Bill felt the impression of what he was about to see. The strength of the event was contained in the particles of air surrounding him. He knew he was nearing ground zero of a psychological blast. He knew it would be like the orange grove. If not worse.
Whatever happened here was more recent, and the vibrations from that event expanded outward as a ripple that had not yet had the time necessary to smooth itself out again.
Bill grew anxious as the agents exited the parked car. His heart raced. A dull ache formed just behind his temples. His stomach twisted into a sour knot. “Don’t make me touch it! Please! I'm going to be sick.” Bill reached down and grabbed the seat with white-knuckled hands.
“Don’t make me make Benny carry you,” Gloria warned.
Bill knew she wasn’t bluffing and released his death grip on the seat. He stepped out of the car on weak legs as the world wavered with ripples of pain.