The Hero

A Short Story by Laura Jane College

A fluorescent light bar hummed overhead as though aswarm with thousands of buzzing insects. It chased away all the shadows in the twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot room, creating what felt to Mark like an inescapable spotlight.

He sat in a metal chair, his elbows planted on a matching rectangular table. Both were bolted to the floor. Across from him was a floor-to-ceiling mirror that stretched the length of the room, but he knew from hundreds of “Law & Order” episodes that anyone standing on the other side of the glass could see through it.

He considered raising his middle finger at the faceless observers but decided against it. Unprovoked displays of anger might lead them to believe he was unstable, and therefore dangerous.

To his left, a black-rimmed institutional clock hung on the painted cinderblock wall. He had been sitting alone in this room for more than an hour, since just after midnight, and the second hand’s tick had synchronized with the pulse of blood in his temple.

None of this made sense. The cops should have been able to confirm with Jessica that he had been in her house with her permission. Why had they not released him?

At one-thirty, the door to the interrogation room creaked open on rusted hinges, and in walked the largest man Mark had ever seen. He was about forty-five, with a flat face and big ears, two hundred pounds overweight, and in one plate-sized hand he carried a thick manila folder.

“Detective Mulroney,” the man said as he waddled across the room and sat down at the table across from Mark. His voice was harsh and heavy with ragged breath. “Mr. Seers, I need to remind you again of your rights and ask if you’d like an attorney present ‘fore we question you.” His spoke with a southern drawl that grated on Mark’s nerves.

“I understand my rights,” Mark replied calmly. “And no lawyer is necessary. I’ve already explained what happened to the officers at the scene. What more can I tell you?”

Mulroney’s fleshy lips stretched into a grin, and he set the manila folder on the table. “You haven’t told me your story, and I’m the one who matters.”

The overactive air-conditioner in the interrogation room raised goose bumps on Mark’s skin. He hugged his arms to his chest and tapped his left foot, hoping to generate some warmth.

“Mr. Seers — “

“ — Call me Mark.”

“Okay, Mark.” Mulroney grinned again, though there was nothing friendly about the expression. “Why don’t you run through what happened tonight. Try to give as much detail as possible.”

Mark sighed. “No problem.” He could repeat his story two hundred times as long as it would get him out of this hole. “Tonight Jessica came to work with fresh bruises on her face.”

“Jessica is your colleague,” Mulroney verified. He double-checked something in his file. “Wife of Carl Bennett, correct?”

“Yes. She has a new cut or bruise every time she comes to work. A few months ago, she finally admitted to me that her husband was abusive. Always hitting her. He drinks, you understand, and he gets violent after he’s tossed a few back. Jess has been his punching bag for the last three years.”

“And Jessica is your girlfriend?”

“No sir. I have a girlfriend — Alicia.”

“But you have been…intimate with Jessica before.”

Mark winced. Alicia did not know that he and Jessica had slept together on numerous occasions, that he had comforted her first with kind words and gentle encouragement, but later with his body. “Yes. Briefly. But that all ended two months ago, when I met Alicia.”

“I understand, Mark. Just need to get the facts straight. Go on.”

“She said today’s beating was worse than any of the others. She said her husband had threatened to kill her. He’d shown her the gun he purchased and told her she only had a few days to live. She was terrified.”

“Why didn’t she leave him?”

“Because Carl has this power over her, this hold. She couldn’t leave him, she said, because she didn’t have any place to go. Anyway, I was furious. I told her I would talk to him, make him see reason. Convince him to let her go so he could get on with his life, maybe get help. She agreed and gave me her house key so I could let myself in.”

“You take a weapon?” Mulroney asked.

“Yes,” he replied with a roll of his eyes. “I brought a .22 pistol, just in case things got ugly. I figured if the bastard saw a gun, he wouldn’t try anything with me.”

Mulroney nodded his head. “Go on.”

“I have a concealed carry permit.”

“Yes, we have that information on file.”

“Which means I’m allowed to take my gun wherever I want.”

“You can’t take it in liquor stores,” Mulroney said.

“What?”

“Liquor stores. It’s illegal in the state of Texas to carry a firearm into a liquor store. You do know that?”

Exasperated, Mark said, “Yes, of course. What does that have to do with anything? I didn’t go to a liquor store tonight.”

A pause as Mulroney studied his face. “Well, sir, you just finished tellin’ me you can take your gun anywhere, and that just ain’t true.”

“I didn’t really mean anywhere.”

“You said ‘anywhere’.”

Mark gritted his teeth. “I wouldn’t take my gun to a day care center, either, but that’s also beside the point.”

He knew Mulroney was trying to ruffle his feathers. Get him good and agitated so he might blurt out something he would otherwise have kept to himself. Get it together, he thought.

“Anyway,” Mark continued, “Jessica told me where she lived and how to get there. I’d never been to her place before, you know, because of the husband. She always came to my place, then after I met Alicia we only saw each other at work.”

“And Alicia didn’t mind you seeing your ex-squeeze on the job? She didn’t get jealous?”

Mark knew the detective would speak with Alicia — if he hadn’t already — and that Alicia would feel torn between protecting her boyfriend’s interests and telling the police the truth. Eventually she would cave on the side of honesty, and Mark did not begrudge her that choice. Alicia was the kindest person he’d ever met, the purest soul. She never lied, never misled, never bent the truth — whether for her own benefit or anyone else’s.

Her integrity was one of the many reasons Mark wanted to marry her someday.

“She didn’t mind because she didn’t know. My thing with Jessica, it was before Alicia. I didn’t see any reason to tell her about a brief affair with a married woman.” Because then she might realize she’s way too good for me.

“I see.” Mulroney nodded his big square head and made a note in the file he’d been flipping through during their conversation.

Mark wanted more than anything to know what was written inside.

“Go on. So you went to the house with your gun.”

“Why are you focusing on that? It’s not like I used the damn thing. I’ve never shot at anything but a target.”

“I’m not focusing on anything, Mark,” Mulroney said in that infuriatingly calm voice. “I’m just stating the facts so’s I don’t miss nothin’.”

“Right. Well, I went to Jessica’s house — “

“What time was that?”

“About eight-thirty. When I left the office, I mean. I didn’t pull into her driveway until, oh, say nine?”

Mulroney shifted his bulk in the metal chair. “Are you askin’ me?”

“Asking you what?”

“Whether you pulled into her driveway at nine o’clock. Way your voice rose at the end of that sentence made me wonder if you was askin’.”

“No, I’m not asking you. I’m just saying, the time is an estimate. I didn’t look at the clock or anything. I was focused on talking to Jessica’s husband.”

“What happened next?”

Mark took a deep breath. If the detective asked him one more inane question, he was going to explode. It shouldn’t take this long to get through such a brief story. “I pulled into the driveway, as I said, and knocked on the door. There was no answer. I could hear the TV on inside, and there were lots of lights on, so I figured he was just ignoring me.”

“You ever met Mr. Bennett?” Mulroney wanted to know.

“I’ve never had the pleasure.”

“Then why did you assume he was ignorin’ you?”

“Because someone was banging on his door in the evening. I ignore people all the time.”

“I see. And then?”

“I’d driven all that way, so I was going to have a talk with Carl. I used the key Jessica gave me to open the door, and went inside. The TV was on, like I thought, but no one was watching it.”

Mulroney interrupted: “What was on?”

“On what?”

“The television, o’course.”

“Why does that matter?” Mark asked. He couldn’t keep the impatience out of his voice.

“Humor me.”

“One of those reality shows, I think. ‘Survivor’ or ‘Amazing Race,’ something like that.”

“Go on.”

A greasy sweat had formed over Mark’s face. He was beginning to suspect that this interrogation was about more than just a simple breaking-and-entering charge. He couldn’t imagine what the police might be accusing him of, but without an inkling of the circumstances, he couldn’t adequately protect himself from saying the wrong thing.

If he stopped talking, however, he would only solidify his guilt in the detective’s mind.

He continued: “There was a light on by the recliner in the living room, like someone had been watching TV there, but I couldn’t hear anything over the sound. I looked in the kitchen and dining room, then checked the garage.”

“Where’d you think Mr. Bennett was?” Mulroney asked.

“He’s a boozer, right? I thought maybe he made a beer run, but there was a car in the garage.”

“So he wasn’t there. What’d you do next?”

“Nothing,” Mark replied. “I went back in the house and was about to check the back rooms when you people barged in. Held me at gunpoint, I might add, even though I obviously wasn’t a threat to anyone.”

“You had a gun of your own, Mark.”

“But the cops didn’t know that. It was in my shoulder holster, concealed. The cops drew down before they even knew what was going on.”

“That’s what police officers are trained to do,” Mulroney said.

Mark wanted to beat the self-satisfied expression off the detective’s face.

He had always viewed cops as protectors of the innocent, brave soldiers in the endless war against crime. Sitting across from this goon, however, he was beginning to reform his opinion. Jessica had once opined that a police officer was nothing more than a regular person on a power trip. Mark was starting to see her point.

He said, “Do you think you could tell me what this is about? What exactly are you charging me with?”

Mulroney leaned back in his chair, wrenching a nails-on-a-chalkboard shriek from the tortured metal. He folded his sausage-link fingers over his considerable gut, and closed his eyes as though deep in thought.

Seconds passed. Mark could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall opposite him, a maddening reminder that he had been stuck in a police interrogation room most of the night.

“Mr. Seers, I’m no clairvoyant. I can’t see the future any better’n I can see my own shoes when I look down at my feet. But cops, we develop a sixth sense — a kind of awareness that regular folks don’t have. Some of us can look at a man and right away tell he’s been up to no good.”

The detective grinned. His teeth were white and straight, almost plastic looking, and Mark wondered if dental hygiene was the only aspect of his health he took seriously.

“But you,” Mulroney continued, “I can’t quite figure out. You seem like an upstandin’ fella: steady job, sweet girlfriend — “

— I was right! He did talk to Alicia

“ — no criminal history, no evidence of financial distress. None of the red flags we look for when someone is accused of this type of crime…”

“What crime?” Mark blurted. He couldn’t help himself. The detective was paying him compliments, but none were sincere. This was all a game with Mulroney, some sick and twisted farce he was intent on playing out the way he’d imagined it. Mark wasn’t in the mood to stroke the ego of a washed-up, full-of-himself cop.

“Murder,” the detective said. No trace of his lop-sided smile remained. His tiny eyes, made smaller by the doughy flesh surrounding them, grew cold with his accusation.

Murder. Mark thought about that word for a moment, suddenly unsure of its definition. How could the police department think he was guilty of taking another human being’s life? It was ludicrous. Some sort of joke. He hadn’t murdered anyone, for God’s sake.

He said nothing, however, because he wasn’t too shocked to realize that his predicament had become infinitely more serious with the announcement of the charges against him. He had thought he was arrested for breaking into the Bennetts’ house. A simple misunderstanding that would be cleared up as soon as the police spoke to Jessica.

“The only way I can figure it,” Mulroney said, “is you and Bennett got into it a little bit worse than you expected. Maybe he threatened you. That’s a big man, sure bigger’n you, and maybe you pulled out the gun to scare him. And maybe you put just a little too much pressure on the trigger. Is that how it happened?”

“Of course not! I didn’t shoot anyone, I swear!”

“Now now, Mr. Seers, let’s be frank. You were arrested at the scene of the crime. You were carryin’ the murder weapon. The M.E. says Mr. Bennett was killed not long before he was found — she’ll be able to narrow that down durin’ the autopsy — and you’ve admitted you were peeved at the guy.

“You wanted to defend your lady friend, the lovely Jessica. She told you about how her ol’ man was beatin’ on her, and you decided to play the knight and leap to her rescue. I get it. Now you’re scared, and I get that too, but it’ll be much easier for all of us if you just tell me how it happened. Get it off your chest, son. You’ll feel better.”

First it was Mr. Seers. Then Mark. Then Mr. Seers again. Now it was son. Just two good ol’ boys shooting the breeze over a couple longnecks. Just admit you killed him so I can go home and raid the fridge.

It was now two-thirty in the morning. Mark had been in custody for about five hours, and already he was losing it.

Sitting in the hard metal chair, staring at the clock, pondering an eternity behind bars, he felt the interrogation room getting smaller. The pale blue cinderblock walls moved in on him — slowly at first, then faster — while the acoustic tile ceiling dropped down from above. The air got thicker, almost syrupy, until it took effort just to suck it into his lungs. It tasted sweet like syrup too, though not nearly as pleasant. Sickening. And far too thick. His vision clouded as he struggled to draw breath, and even when he closed his eyes he could feel the walls pressing in on him, a giant mountain of pressure, unbearable, until he was sure the ceiling would flatten him against the linoleum floor.

He did not realize he’d fallen out of his chair until he opened his eyes and found himself flat on his back. The ceiling was back where it should be — about eight feet from the tip of his nose — and the walls had regained their normal dimensions. He breathed in. Stale air, smelling faintly of disinfectant and urine, but thin enough to inhale.

Mulroney stood over him. The detective’s striped blue tie hung off the edge of his bulging midsection like a hiker dangling from the sheer face of a mountain ridge. In the cop’s eyes was satisfaction rather than concern. “You okay, boy?”

Mark had never met any criminals, so he had no way of knowing whether fainting was a sign of innocence or guilt. But from the look on Mulroney’s face, a sudden loss of consciousness did not look good.

He heaved himself off the floor and into the metal chair again. Put his elbows on the table. Rested his forehead in his hands. Muttered a few choice expletives.

Mulroney took the seat opposite Mark again and folded his own hands on the table. “What you might not realize, son, is that there are lots of ways this could go down. If you confess, I mean. The District Attorney has lots of cases on his plate, lots of criminals to push through the system. He’ll certainly offer you a deal — a good deal! — in exchange for your cooperation. And our prisons are so overcrowded that you’d probably only serve ‘bout a quarter of that reduced sentence. I don’t like it, but that’s the way the system works. Ya hear?”

“Sure,” Mark said, struggling to keep his voice even. “That would sound like an attractive option if I were actually guilty. The problem with your logic is that I won’t confess to a crime I never committed in the first place. Ya hear?”

A flash of anger disturbed Mulroney’s practiced apathetic façade. Then, as though it had never existed, the rage melted once again into his typical mocking visage. “I wouldn’t be glib, Mr. Seers, not with all the evidence stacked against you.”

“Evidence? What evidence? You say Carl Bennett was murdered: Okay, I believe you. But that doesn’t mean I did it. The fact that I was in the building where the murder occurred doesn’t prove anything.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t,” Mulroney said. “The circumstantial evidence ain’t enough to convict you in court, but in addition to the wife’s testimony, I think it goes a long way.” He plucked a sheaf of paper from the folder in front of him and referenced it as he spoke. “Mrs. Bennett says her husband never laid a hand on her. She says you were the one who beat her bloody during an abusive and ill-advised affair. Then, when she finally got up the courage to tell you it was over, you told her if you couldn’t have her, no one could. Then you grabbed your gun and took off.”

Mark listened to the summary of Jessica’s statement with a straight face, but inside he felt as though an enormous suction cup were trying to separate his heart from his chest. Why would Jessica spread such lies? What could she have to gain?

He hadn’t loved Jessica. She was sweet and beautiful and vulnerable, but she possessed neither the emotional depth nor the strength of personality Mark sought in a mate. He had slept with her, yes, but not out of love. Their coupling had been purely physical, a distraction from the tedium of work and from the banality of life.

A life that had become much sweeter upon meeting Alicia. She was just as sweet and beautiful as Jessica, but she also challenged him. Every moment spent with her was an opportunity to better himself in some way.

Now he realized that Jessica was far more intelligent and cunning than he had thought possible. In setting him up, she had revealed a capacity for evil that Mark had only previously witnessed in fiction.

He said nothing more to the detective. To open his mouth again would risk further incriminating himself and, with this new development, it was clear he needed the counsel of a good attorney.

“Men!” Alicia sat down in one of the floral-patterned easy chairs in the sunroom. “You know, sometimes I think I should give up entirely. If they’re not cheating or running their mouths, they’re off whacking their mistress’s husband.” She took a sip of coffee, then set the mug on a white wicker end table.

Across from her sat Jessica Bennett, the woman whose husband Mark was accused of killing. “I know what you mean,” Jessica said, running a hand through her shoulder-length blonde hair. A single tear traced the curve of her cheek. “And listen, you’re really very kind to invite me into your home. After…everything. You must think I’m a total sleaze, sleeping with a co-worker while I was married.”

Alicia waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, no. Honey, sometimes the grass is just greener. You get bored, you get frustrated. I understand. Besides, didn’t I hear your husband was abusive? I would have stepped out on him, too.”

Jessica nodded. Took a sip of her own coffee. “Beat me black and blue some nights. I know I’m supposed to be grieving right now, and I guess on some level I am. But it’s hard to mourn the loss of someone who treated you so awful. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I’m a widow.”

I’ll bet it is, Alicia thought. She said: “You really shouldn’t beat yourself up. I think the men do enough of that for us.”

Don’t lay it on too thick, she reminded herself. With no experience in these kinds of situations, she wasn’t exactly sure how to act. She knew she wanted to exonerate Mark — he didn’t deserve to spend one more minute, let alone twenty-five years, behind bars — but she was also uncomfortably aware of her own limitations. Deception did not come easily to her.

The blonde said, “May he rot in prison for what he did to Carl…even if the bastard had it coming.”

Alicia picked up her coffee mug and absently traced the rim with the index finger of her right hand. The brew was fresh, but it wasn’t hot enough to melt the frozen knot of fear in her stomach.

She said, “Wait, maybe I have it all wrong. Was it Carl who beat you? Or was it Mark? I can’t remember exactly what the cops told me.”

To her credit, Jessica allowed her expression to change for only a second before she recovered. “Actually, it was both of them. I’ve got the worst taste in men.”

“You must!” Alicia wagged her head back and forth in sympathy. “You know, with all these people talking at me at once, it’s hard to keep up. A girl could get whiplash trying to keep track of all the he-said, she-said. More coffee?”

“Oh no, another drop and I’ll be climbing your walls.” Jessica’s clear blue eyes roamed the sunroom. Then she said, “You’ve really done a beautiful job with this place. I don’t know how you made such a small house feel so big and open.”

Was that a compliment or an insult? Alicia wondered. She said, “I try to do the most with what I have.”

“An admirable quality,” Jessica said. “So…do you think Mark will be convicted at trial?”

Definitely an insult. “The jury would be insane not to convict. The cops’ve got him dead to rights, as I understand it. They caught him at the murder scene, with the murder weapon, and there’s a personal history with the victim’s wife. Sounds like a slam dunk to me.” Alicia paused for a moment. “It’ll be your testimony that puts him away.”

Jessica leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, as though hunching under the weight of the burden she carried. “I just hope I’m able to keep it together on the stand. If I don’t, the bastard will probably get away with it.”

Now or never, Alicia thought. Either she possessed the will to do what must be done or she didn’t. She said, “If your performance is as good in court as it is right now, I imagine you’ll have the jury eating out of your hand before the defense even gets to take a crack at you.”

She waited for that to sink in. Took another sip of coffee to swallow her smile.

It took Jessica only a few seconds to interpret the meaning behind Alicia’s words. Her eyebrows shot up. “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh come on, Jess. You know exactly what it means. You think you’re playing me like a fiddle right now, but you couldn’t be more transparent if you bathed yourself in Windex. I know Mark didn’t kill your husband. I also know Mark never laid a hand on you.”

Jessica stood up. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I certainly don’t have to listen to it. Mark killed my husband, and if you’re standing by him you’re as wretched as he is.” She stalked across the sunroom and through the archway that led into the kitchen.

Alicia followed. “The cops are going to figure it out, you know. Right now you think you thought of everything…but then, I put it together, didn’t I? If I can, so will the police. It’s just a matter of time.”

Corner her. Make her feel trapped.

Jessica whirled around, revealing a face so flushed with blood that she looked like she’d spent the last six hours under a heat lamp. “You’d better watch it,” she snarled. A few flecks of spittle arced through the air and fell to the ceramic tile floor.

“Or what?” Alicia asked. “There’s nothing more you can do to me. You’ve already put the love of my life behind bars.”

A disdainful laugh. “I’ll do worse if you say one word to the cops. Yeah, I killed that pathetic bastard. Always holding me back, always in my way. He was sleeping like a baby when I pulled the trigger.” Another laugh — humorless, and grating to the ear. “He got what was coming to him, and so help me, you’ll get what’s coming to you, too.”

Alicia ignored the threat and favored Jessica with a grin of her own. She pulled up the hem of her t-shirt to reveal a tiny microphone taped to the flat plane of her belly. “Want to say that a little louder for the folks listening at home?” She turned to face the pantry door on the left side of the kitchen. “Detective, did you get all that?”

The door swung open, and Mulroney squeezed himself across the threshold. In his pale, pudgy hand was a pistol. “Yes, ma’am, I think I got it all.”

Thank God. She had been willing to do whatever it took to get Mark exonerated for the murder of Carl Bennett, but she couldn’t deny the toll this experience had taken on her. Although she maintained a triumphant grin, her hands were vibrating like the speakers on an overtaxed sound system, and her entire body was coated in a cold sweat.

Her relief prevented her from realizing at first that Mulroney was not pointing his weapon at Jessica. Instead, the hollow barrel was aimed at her own chest.

She frowned. When she glanced at Jessica, she was shocked to discover that the grin had not faded from the other woman’s lips.

“I reckon this means I’m cleanin’ up your mess yet again, little lady,” Mulroney said. His tiny black pig eyes darted between the two women, but he held his gun level and steady.

Probably not his service pistol. When he shot Alicia, he wouldn’t want the weapon traced to him.

“Oh, baby, you know how much I appreciate all your hard work.” Jessica danced across the kitchen to Mulroney’s side and slipped like a cat under his left arm. “I’ll be sure to thank you later — for however long you like.”

Her syrupy voice was enough to trigger Alicia’s gag reflex if the realization of her lousy predicament hadn’t already done the trick.

“Mark was arrested less than forty-eight hours ago!” Alicia said. “How on earth did you find time to seduce a detective?” She began to back slowly toward the sunroom. If she could make it out of the kitchen before Mulroney pulled the trigger, she might be able to get out of this mess.

“Oh, me and Jess’ve been together for a long time,” Mulroney said, giving Jessica’s shoulder a squeeze. “When you came to me with this half-baked notion that she belongs behind bars, I knew I had to make it right.”

“And killing me makes it right? So much for to protect and to serve.

“Kill her, baby,” Jessica purred. “Kill her for me. Then we can finally run away together.”

Alicia had backed herself into the archway between the sunroom and kitchen. She kept her eyes on Mulroney. “Wow, Jessica, you sure do get around. You’ve got more notches in your headboard than half the hookers in Vegas.”

She didn’t take time to enjoy the looks of indignation on their faces. In one smooth motion, she reached up and behind her, dipping her hand into the soil of a potted fern that hung from the sunroom ceiling. Her fingers closed around the cold metal of her .22 pistol and yanked it from its hiding place.

Mulroney fired a shot, but it went wide and the slug slammed into the back wall of the kitchen. Alicia ducked instinctively, leveling her own pistol at the same time, and pulled the trigger. A hole opened in the front of Mulroney’s cheap blue suit.

Mark Seers’s checking account contained exactly $2,114.62. In his savings account was an additional $4,802, and a money market fund held $10,000, plus accrued interest. He rented his home, leased his car, and owned no expensive jewelry or electronics. His net worth did not add up to the $20,000 a bondsman would require to get him out of jail. Furthermore, larger bonds required some type of collateral in addition to the ten percent fee.

Consequently, he couldn’t conceal his surprise when he was released at midnight, two days after his arrest. He walked out of the county jail in which he’d spent the previous forty-eight hours, blinking in the harsh light of the sodium vapor streetlamps that lined the parking lot.

Waiting at the side of the building was Alicia.

He ran to her. Threw his arms around her waist. Hugged her to his chest so tightly that she complained of an inability to breathe.

“How did you afford it?” he whispered into the soft skin of her neck. He pulled away from her and held her shoulders at arm’s length. “Please tell me you didn’t put up your house to get me out.”

She laughed, sweeping her long brown hair behind her ears. “I didn’t have to. The charges have been dropped.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. I took care of it.” She told him about the spoiled setup with Jessica and Mulroney, and about the subsequent shooting. “Thank God you bought me that pistol. Otherwise I’d probably be dead right now.”

“I told you, every woman who lives alone in a big city should have something for personal protection,” he said. He had bought her the weapon at the same time he bought his own. At first she had resisted the gift, uncertain about the safety of hiding a loaded pistol in her home. After a series of robberies were reported in her neighborhood, however, she had backed down.

Even in the dim lighting of the jail parking lot, she was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. In risking her life for his, she had proved herself his superior in every regard. He didn’t deserve her.

He hesitated, unwilling to dull the moment. But curiosity got the better of him. “Is Mulroney dead?” he asked tentatively.

Alicia shook her head. “I called 9–1–1 as soon as it happened. Jessica ran out the front door, I guess figuring her best bet was to take off, but the cops caught her at a pawn shop about two hours later, trying to hock a necklace she stole from my jewelry box.” She paused. “I still don’t know how she got hold of it.

“Anyway, Mulroney was rushed to the hospital, and the doctors were able to operate. The small caliber of the bullet combined with the speed of treatment saved his life. Of course, he might be wishing he was dead right now. He’s facing God-knows how many years in prison with criminals who aren’t too fond of cops.”

“So I take it you never believed I did this.”

“What? Murder a guy?” She chuckled and rested a warm hand against his cheek. “Sweetie, you’re about the most non-violent man I’ve ever met. If you killed someone, I robbed a liquor store last week.”

“Just as long as you didn’t take a gun,” Mark said.

“Huh?”

He shook his head. “Never mind.” Slinging an arm around her shoulders and ushering her toward the parking lot, he said, “You know, I could really go for a Big Mac right about now.”

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