Police Chief Rick Anderson pulls the blinds shut and retreats behind his desk. His mind flits back to the phone call from his ex-wife this morning. He agreed to see her at a coffeehouse in half an hour.
Jody’s request to meet amazed him. She hasn’t called since their divorce last year. Why now? Why today? He can hardly bear to see the pain in her eyes on any other day, let alone on the anniversary of their daughter’s death.
Carla was raped. Defiled by three strangers. The memory remains tenacious in Rick’s mind. He vowed to make them pay, but she was unresponsive to his questions at first. Placed under days of grueling interrogation by his team, she acted brave.
Tell us the truth, girl. Tell us everything. Don’t hold back.
As part of the official investigative body, he drove his own daughter to the brink.
I tried, Dad. I’m really sorry. Forgive me.
He found the envelope addressed to him on her desk. The meaning of Carla’s note slowly dawned upon him. A cold dread wrenched his gut, unfurling into an overpowering chill as he stepped into the bathroom and found his fifteen-year-old lying in a tub of red, wrists sliced. Every detail was imprinted in his mind. Each stroke of her handwriting. Her tormented look. That vile stench.
He flicks the Zippo lighter recovered from a crime scene six months ago. The initials I.S. and fingerprints on the polished chrome led them to one Ian Sadowski. Forensics identified the two burned bodies as Sadowski’s known associates.
Thirty months of investigation based on the clues Carla provided went down the drain when Rick initially failed to nail those three rapist bastards, the DNA evidence declared insufficient.
Clueless about his personal vendetta, Jody despised him for neglecting her when she needed him most. The endless arguments, the lies he told to keep her out of it, broke their marriage.
His superior took Rick off the case. The month-long leave of absence was just what he needed to set his plan in motion. He followed the trio for a while, waiting for them to slip up. All it took for the cracks to appear in the relationship between Sadowski and his gang were a few rumors Rick “carelessly” dropped here and there. He asked his faithful sergeant to call in the three men for questioning, detain Sadowski for forty-eight hours, and set the other two free separately. The little mind game helped to drive the wedge among the trio.
One evening, Rick was nursing a vodka tonic on one of the stools in a corner of a dive bar, keeping tabs on the three men as usual when Sadowski’s Zippo lighter on the table offered Rick a sparkle of inspiration. The two men were having a game of pool, so it was just Sadowski at the table, chugging down his drink. Rick paid a cute, young waitress fifty bucks to distract Sadowski. When she spilled a glass of beer on her taut white top and “accidentally” dropped the glass, Sadowski and most of the bar’s attention focused on her.
Rick made his move. He hadn’t shaved in weeks. Dressed in a down vest, jeans, and a trucker cap, he looked like any other patron. Just as he hoped, Sadowski didn’t recognize him. He palmed the Zippo while the bastard was still leering at the girl.
Sadowski left with a blonde in a tight red dress that night. Rick tailed the other two drunks back to their den.
Click. Click. Click.
The details of what he did next still haunted him.
The smell of gasoline. Immense heat from the flames. Frantic kicks and thumps at the door. The cries of the two men trapped in the warehouse. Did Carla scream and beg like that?
The stench of charred skin stung Rick’s nose. He gagged. Sweat and tears streaming down his face, he staggered to his car and tossed the Zippo into a gutter.
Rick snaps the lighter closed. This little beauty put Sadowski behind bars for two lifetimes. Hell, given the choice, Rick will do it all over again.
He pours some whiskey over the dregs of his coffee and raises the cup in memory of his princess. At last, justice has been served. Yet, he can’t find peace. All he feels is hollowness.
Tears welling in his eyes, he runs his fingers over the inscription on the Zippo. The technician in the evidence room did Rick a favor — he didn’t need to sign for it. Just a quick look, he promised.
He lights a cigarette, holds it between trembling fingers, and takes a deep puff. Smoke curls in the air.
Someone taps at the door. Drinking and smoking are prohibited on the job even after office hours, but twenty years of dedicated service ought to earn him some privilege. “Come in.”
His detective enters the room. He likes her spirit. Fresh on the force, bright and tough, she reminds him of his younger self, back when his idealism wasn’t tainted by harsh reality.
“I’ve taken care of those files.” Her gaze briefly veers to the glowing stick and the whiskey bottle. Her brows furrow. “You okay, Chief?”
“I’ve been better.”
“One of those days, huh?”
She doesn’t know, and he’s glad he doesn’t have to deal with the sympathetic look and comforting words others offered him. “I’ll be fine.” Rick gives a faint nod. “You go on home now.”
He slumps into the chair, and taking a long drag on his cigarette, gazes at the family photo on his desk. The edges of his lips twitch. He forgot how to smile the day Carla left, his soul broken and battered.
Is this it? Will he spend the rest of his life stuck in a limbo between sorrow and guilt? This isn’t living. Carla wouldn’t want it. She would want him to move on. He can start anew. Maybe mend a relationship with the remaining person who matters. He crushes the cigarette against the bottom of his desk and seals the lighter back in its evidence bag, along with the wretched memories.
Rick downs the rest of his drink and grabs his jacket. If he hurries, he can make it to the coffeehouse in ten minutes.