The other travelers were reluctant to return to the bowels of the boat, lingering on deck to see the last of the sun, to bid farewell to new friends who stood dockside, to parade their exotic purchases in the same manner as peacocks displayed fresh plumage.
Rhonda Bradshaw hid in her small stateroom, curled beneath the heavy comforter. Its warmth was soothing, more so than her remembrances. She lay there wishing that she might simply slip out of this world, cocooned in warmth and this dullness of mind.
Gradually, though, more visceral needs took priority. Sluggish as she might be, she was hungry. And judging from the time, she had already slept through dinner and supper. There might still be a cook lurking around the bar, but if not, she would only be able to get the oversalted, tasteless abomination known as microwave nachos. Hurriedly dressing, she made her way back to the deck.
Dear god, not him. Not now.
She tried to smile at Officer Sarandon and failed utterly. Conscious of her rudeness, she did manage to tip her head to him. “Another surprising meeting, Officer. I was absolutely not aware that you were a part of this cruise.”
“I wasn’t,” he said candidly. “One of your fellow passengers had to return stateside a week early due to a personal emergency. I happened to be in the hotel lobby as she was checking out, and I bought her return ticket.”
“You seem to take a great deal of delight in locating me. May I ask why?”
Only the slight upward motion of his left eyebrow indicated that he was startled by her assertive tone of voice. The rest of his face remained placid. “This could be a long story. Do you really want to hear it, Mrs. Bradshaw?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You’ve been in my bedroom. I think you’re entitled to call me Rhonda at this point.”
His chuckle was a low grumble, and he offered her his hand. “Thomas. … oh, don’t eat the vegetables. The flies got to them first. Could we go into the bar, perhaps? Would that offend you?”
She shook her head, though she wasn’t looking forward to dredging up these inevitably ugly memories with only alcohol to fortify her. He seemed to understand. As soon as the bartender came into sight, he gestured. “Hey there! Kitchen closed yet?”
The bartender smiled slyly. “Technically. But what can I get for you?”
Fifteen minutes later, Thomas had a beautiful black angus burger with all of the trimmings, and Rhonda stared aghast at the “Bo’sun’s Platter,” an orgy of fried seafood. Shrimp. Scallops. Oysters. Clams. Grouper. Hushpuppies. And more french fries than she had ever eaten in her entire life. She gingerly bit into one fried thing, and then another. Thomas smiled to see her begin eating readily. “Good, isn’t it?”
“Delicious,” she had to agree.
They ate their food silently. The bartender made drinks for them with the last of the collins glasses. “I gotta lock up, but just set the glasses outside of your rooms when you’re done with them, housekeeping will pick ’em up in the morning.”
“The two of you seem to know each other well,” Rhonda commented as they left the bar area and traveled to the fore deck. The water was dark beneath them, the moon lustrous overhead. A steady wind blew from the west.
“We do. He’s a little easier to talk to than the other passengers. So, you wanted to know why I keep following you around.” He sighed and drank again.
“You remember, Mrs. …err, Rhonda, that I told you I was present at Mr. Wallace’s initial interrogation. I was a very young officer then, barely a month into my probationary period, and here I was sitting in on an actual suspect questioning. I wasn’t supposed to talk, just watch. I’ve been in countless interrogations since then. I’ve seen liars and thieves. I’ve seen pillars of the community admit to terrible things. But it’s never left me, just how frightened he looked sitting there. Let me tell you, when I see that look on a suspect’s face now, it’s almost a sure thing we’ve got the wrong guy.
“When he left town, I tried to track him, but I got the runaround in the department … not enough manpower, case wasn’t worth reopening, so on. But I didn’t forget. So when a federal prosecutor came to me to ask if I still had the case notes, I asked why, right? Why would a federal prosecutor be interested in the police write-up on some accountant from years and years ago?”
He wandered to the rail. Rhonda followed.
“Do you have any idea how big the Blakely Firm is, Rhonda? I mean, the corporate office back in town is fairly impressive and all, but that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. They’re on all six continents, with their fingers in millions of pies. And one thing that’s consistent is that they use NHO electronics in all of their offices, all around the world.”
Rhonda considered this. NHO. She could see the ugly, gaudy symbol before her eyes at that very moment. The joke in her day was that NHO stood for Never Has to Operate. But that was just common griping. Wasn’t it?
“NHO, as I’ve found, was under a great deal of suspicion for their business practices. Like this particular branch of the Blakely Firm, there’s been a good bit of talk about dirty accounting, and to add fuel to the fire, their equipment standards were outmoded and in certain cases, dangerous. And yet, with the Blakely Firm as their largest account, they were able to stay in business.”
He drained the last of the alcohol and set down the empty glass. “What it all came down to was blackmail. I won’t bore you with the gory details. Suffice it to say that NHO had a vested interest in keeping the Blakely Firm well supplied. And of course the good people at Blakely would never be so ungracious as to sue NHO when say, a computer failure puts a low-level employee’s life and well-being at risk.”
“So when this gentleman came for my files, I decided to see if there was any other cases out there like Mr. Wallace’s. And I found them … god, did I find them. Some of them in persistent vegetative states, others who tried to move on with life and didn’t want to remember because looking back was too frightening. In every case when I was able to do more than cursory research, it seemed the person involved either consistently saw or heard something that they couldn’t explain. The ones who made it out with their sanity intact had friends to help them through.”
She heard the unspoken implication. Titus had gone mad because there hadn’t been anyone left to stop him from doing so.
“I’m not saying this to blame you, of course. There wasn’t a single caretaker or family member I spoke to who felt at ease with their loved one anymore. Really, how could you? This person whom you always knew is now completely different, and you don’t know if there’s any way of going back to the way things were.” He contemplated a second drink, and took it.
He smiled ruefully. “That is probably one of the only benefits of being ambitious and single. You can spend as much at work as you please, and no one at home cares if you decide to use your vacation time in chasing down phantom leads instead going to an amusement park or some beach. Not to mention it becomes a lot easier to make repeated trips overseas when a federal prosecutor is looking to file a career-building case.”
The smile vanished again and he heaved a bitter sigh. “So many of the people I found didn’t want to talk or were already beyond help. When I found out that Mr. Wallace was not only alive, but still creating, I had hope that I could save him from the fate of all the others. I was going to make up for that interrogation all those years ago … I was going to save him. And in the end, I failed. Again.”
“No,” she said quickly. “I would rather … this is better than sitting below deck, crying and wishing that I had never come at all. I’m grateful.”
She sat on the nearest lounge chair and stared at the stars. Thomas continued to lean against the rail. The silence behind him grew so deep that he imagined she had fallen asleep. He determined to stay by her side until she awoke again. He could do that much, at least.
But five minutes later she turned to him, and much to his surprise, asked if he wouldn’t mind telling her his middle name.
In the time that remained to them, Rhonda and Thomas became very firm companions. She was ever mindful of propriety, if for no other reason, because the owner of the ship was on board and was a good friend of her husband’s. Thomas, likewise, often wore his badge and holster and did not want to appear to be fraternizing with a civilian.
Still, they spent a great deal of time in each other’s company. If she attended a ship function, he was certain to be there. Perhaps on the other side of the room. And he could always count on her to be in the lounge area after the official supper. Usually snacking on fried seafood, at a bar table near the window.
She asked once if he believed that Titus was actually dead, and he had asked, “Do you?” And since there was no way to know, they left it at that.
It was raining, and the gloom made the ship miserable and chill. Waiters teetered up and down the hallways with silver trays of hot liquids, some with stronger spirits infused into them. She had chosen a cup of rich chocolate seasoned with Irish whisky; he had gone for coffee and brandy.
“I suppose I’ll go back home and write up what little I learned and see what Mr. Rivers can use. And then … move on to the next possible lead, I guess. Really, I don’t know. It’s not my case to win or lose. I’m just a cop.”
“What did you learn?” she asked through chattering teeth.
He was silent for quite some time. She waited.
Finally he said, “In a strange way, every person I know of who was … changed … was given a chance to experience something that most of us will never approach. Most of them fought against it or denied it. Titus seemed to embrace it.”
“Or he was drowned in it,” she added.
“Or that,” he said, nodding. “But anyway, that’s not what I learned. Nor did I learn that snow on rare occasions falls on islands in the Nile. All of this should probably stay between us, Rhonda. As Titus found out for himself, the odds of being taken seriously are poor.”
The other passengers disembarked noisily, greeting husbands and children. Thomas also left and went in search of his squad car.
Rhonda stood there with her bags, wondering what she should do. She had hoped that David would be here to meet her, but he was nowhere in sight. It occurred to her that he had not answered the phone the last few times that she had called home. She stood in the emptying parking lot alone, feeling disoriented and oddly frightened.
Thomas appeared again, helping lift her luggage into his back seat. He was going her way, he knew where she lived, he’d be happy to take her home. No, it was no bother. So with no further objections, she made the trip back to town in silence. Every now and again she fell asleep, and started awake again with a gasp.
“Is everything all right?” he asked again and again, and each time she lied. She was fine. She just wasn’t used to being on the land. Perhaps her fever was returning. She had eaten too much fried food, it was a spot of indigestion.
“Maybe he’s just asleep,” she shrugged. She began to unlock the front door as he pulled her suitcases from the rear seats.
By the time he carried them to the porch, the door was carelessly open. Rhonda stood on the threshold, her face ashen. Thomas looked around her shaking frame to see the broken vase and the dull stain on the floor.
He led her away gently before paging the precinct dispatcher and listening to the crackled response intently. After thanking the dispatcher, he looked at Rhonda with wide eyes. “He’s in the hospital. He was admitted two days ago.”
They were in the police car in an instant. Thomas drove as quickly as he dared. Rhonda looked at her hands and tried to remain calm. Neither of them said a word all the way there, but their thoughts were the same: What happened?
Room 302. A harried hand had scrawled “Bradshaw” on the door marker. Rhonda breathed in slowly before opening the door.
She recoiled into Thomas instantly and hid her face in her hands. “Oh god! Oh, David.”
Thomas looked at the man lying silently next to the beeping monitors. The fresh scars on his top leg. The bruises on his face, the cuts on his palms. He thought back to the damage in the house. “Rhonda, he must have stumbled and fallen. Look at his leg, he’s broken it.”
At this, she looked up at him, and realizing that they were practically in each other’s arms, backed away. But she managed to smile through the tears. “David never would use his cane. He was always so stubborn about it. He didn’t like to seem … weak.”
David stirred at the mention of his name. Thomas took that as his cue to leave, but Rhonda followed him out of the room.
“Officer Sarandon,” she began. “I truly appreciate everything you’ve done for me through the years. I mean, if you hadn’t come looking for me twenty years ago to answer some questions, I don’t think I’d be in this hospital, crying over that man in there. This entire experience helped me see that I needed to be my own person, not solely a wife, and for that I’m very grateful. But I want to pursue my own happiness now, and I don’t think I can do that looking backwards. I know that you still have your investigation to run, but from this point going forward, I’d like to ask you to leave me out of it.”
He nodded and smiled. “Good luck to you, Mrs. Bradshaw.”
She smiled back, and shook his hand.
Thomas Sarandon did go back to the precinct and file his report to the federal prosecutor just as promised. There was little that he could add from his journey, as lawyers preferred details such as hard evidence, and not such items as unexplained weather phenomena. He ended the report with “Mr. Wallace was last seen collapsed in his home. Presumed deceased.”
He was on an evening patrol, slowly cruising the city, when he saw two figures in black at the cemetery hovering over a grave. He stopped the car and watched as the man placed a stuffed animal next to the bouquet that rested against the tombstone. The man stiffly rose again at his partner’s touch. And they walked away together, arm in arm, he, moving slowly to disguise his crooked gait, and she, straighter and taller than ever as he leaned on her. Even from a distance, Thomas could hear the sound of their voices and their laughter, the happy sound of two people enjoying each other’s company.
Hard to believe that five years ago, those same two people were on the verge of a bitter divorce.
He thought about the singularity of their situation through the remainder of his shift. It was ironic that a couple thrust unexpectedly into “for worse, for sickness and for poorer” actually became stronger and better for the experience, but then again, Rhonda had said that she wanted to pursue her own happiness. Clearly, she had found it.
** The End**