Nothing could be more irritating than the persistent stinging of a canker sore. Every time Ethan moved his mouth, he could feel both his shredded cheek and blistered lip. He couldn’t help but tongue the wounds—causing himself further pain that would relieve the stinging sensation for a few seconds afterward—as he quietly sat waiting for Chase to question him.
He had imagined being in an interrogation room with Chase since the first time they met, and it was based solely on what he had seen on television. He pictured a dark room with one bright, swinging light above his head, making the darkness around him impossible to see through. He could only make out a couple of figures, threatening him to confess to the crime he allegedly committed.
In all actuality, the interrogation room he was escorted to was completely opposite of what he had imagined. The room was bright, illuminated by multiple fluorescent lights that did not flicker. He sat in one of two folding, metal chairs located on opposite sides of a folding table—the same cheap furniture he had seen in a school gymnasium or wedding hall. The walls were painted in the same boring, white paint that he detested in hospitals, and the room lacked a typical two-way mirror that he had imagined was in every interrogation room.
He knew it was probably because this wasn’t a typical interrogation. He wasn’t placed under arrest and hadn’t been accused of a crime, but rather had called Chase himself, prior to making the rash decision to take matters into his own hands.
Now he would have to make a choice. He could either tell Chase the truth about Roger and that he had attacked him, or lie in an effort to protect himself from serving time in prison. In any case, it was imperative that Chase sympathize with him in the event that the truth was to come out.
He sat waiting for about five minutes until the door opened and Chase stepped into the room. His posture shifted from slouching to sitting more upright and alert, while his heart picked up pace and sweat glands commenced production.
Chase’s blank and emotionless expression quickly changed to surprise with his eyebrows raised as he laid eyes on Ethan’s face.
“Whoa. You look like shit buddy,” Chase said with a smirk on his face, sitting down at the table facing Ethan. He placed a folder on the table and opened it, eyes scanning over the paper on top.
He wasn’t sure what Chase was reading, or what the folder pertained to for that matter. Like any guilty criminal would experience, his nerves were rattled. His only response was to be humorous. “Trust me, I feel like it too.”
Chase looked back at him with a straight face, as if he was waiting for another response. “Well, what happened to you?”
Ethan wanted to get the truth off his chest. The words confessing his actions against Roger were on the tip of his tongue, nearly spilling out between his lips. Fear of being torn away from Maria and Renee overwhelmed him, causing him to lie once more. “A disgruntled father attacked my coworker and I this morning. Luckily, we were able to apprehend him before either of us were seriously injured.”
“Ah,” Chase said as if it was completely understandable. “So, you were involved with that, too? Interesting how prominent you are in the crime plaguing Onett. Wonder what you did in a past life to deserve this?”
He couldn’t tell if Chase was being serious or sarcastic. He refrained from smiling and kept the inside joke—that his actions in the current life were most likely the cause. “I don’t know, but it makes you think.”
“We’ve arrested four more individuals that were connected with Thomas’s porn ring, but still no further leads on who the co-conspirator is. So, I had you come down to help me with that. You did leave me a message claiming to know who the man is, did you not?”
He had spent all morning trying to come up with a logical excuse, but any partial reasoning he had come up with completely vanished from existence as he was put on the spot by Chase. Like any criminal being pressed for an alibi, he said the first thing that came to mind. “Yeah, about that. I was going through my previous cases the other day, and I noticed one guy that fit the profile, so I got overzealous and gave you a call. After going over it several times in my head, I now realize there isn’t all that much evidence to support it.”
The left eyebrow above Chase’s eye raised. “Well, it can’t hurt to take a look at the guy. Why the change of heart?”
“I jumped to a conclusion based on my emotional response. There was this pedophile case I worked on a year ago. Blake Reeves was molesting his daughter, but we couldn’t get her to admit it and there was zero evidence. Well, at least concrete evidence viable in court. But I witnessed the only evidence I needed to confirm my suspicions. The poor girl was terrified of the man and showed no affection for him. Luckily, the mother at least took her away from him. I remember the little girl looking quite a bit like Kathy, but that’s all I have to go on. I hope I didn’t waste your time?”
Perspiration began to form along the hairline on Ethan’s forehead, his heart pounding in his chest hard enough that he was surprised Chase couldn’t hear it. He anxiously watched Chase’s expression to see if his excuse was believable. He feared what would happen if Chase didn’t accept it because he had no other excuse, at least not a remotely logical one.
Chase’s eyebrows sloped downward as his forehead wrinkled. “It can’t hurt to take a look. I actually appreciate the help. The last thing we want is this guy running around out there, hurting more children or recruiting other kidnappers.”
Sighing in relief, he could not shake the surreal feeling he had. The consequences of his actions and lies had been postponed yet again. Postponed rather than avoided because he would never feel completely absolved of his sins, no matter how much he tried to justify them. One thing was true of consciously knowing one’s self had committed a crime, and that was guilt would never forsake you.
His only reaction was to smile. “Hopefully it helps. Lord knows that man isn’t innocent.”
Chase began speaking in a serious tone. “You should really take a vacation or time off from work, Mr. Harper. I fear that you might be overwhelmed and taking responsibility too personally.”
“What do you mean exactly?” he said, confused.
“I have looked over your records from the last several years. You’ve been involved in some serious shit, Ethan.”
Anger replaced his nervousness as Chase degraded the unsettling and serious events that he had experienced because of the verbiage chosen. Scowling, he responded, “I would say that’s an understatement, Mr. Ramsey.”
“I apologize. I just mean that you have witnessed and experienced some traumatic events. You were involved in altercations with an abusive father and child abducting cannibal that resulted in their deaths, you lost a child who was murdered by his father after having a mistrial, and you have rescued various children from abusive households. Based on your record of work hours, I’d say you spend too much time at work and could use a vacation.”
“I work hard because it’s my job. The children rely on m—on social workers to save them from their heinous situations.”
“Look, I can imagine how you feel. I’ve only had to fire my gun twice in the field; once actually killing a man. But I have seen some terrible crime scenes. Things that I’ve had nightmares about on occasion, and some have even made me sick to my stomach. I just know how involved you can become. I don’t want you making any bad decisions. You seem like an honorable man, but even honorable men can cross the line.”
“Why does this feel like you might be trying to accuse me of something?”
Chase put both of his hands up signaling Ethan to calm down. “Whoa, Sir. No need to get so defensive. I asked you to come down here because I wanted to know more about this guy you were talking about, from the voicemail that you left me mind you.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been pretty stressed lately is all,” Ethan said.
“That’s my whole point,” Chase said, standing up from his chair.
Ethan stood up once Chase opened the interrogation room door and held it open for him. Walking down the hall to the front door, he stopped and turned around when Chase made one more comment.
“I’ll follow up on Blake and let you know if I find anything. I hope you’ll be out of state relaxing somewhere when I speak to you next,” Chase said.
Ethan gave him a confirmation nod and exited the police station. As he stepped outside, his eyes began to burn as they were exposed to the thermal rays of the sun; more so than usual because of the soft fluorescent lights that had calibrated his eyes inside the precinct. The sunshine emboldened his confidence.
While walking toward Owen’s car with squinted eyes, he raised his arm to shield his retinas from the vibrant beams of light that only seconds later were subdued by dark clouds. That confidence he was feeling quickly turned into a sense of regret, rising up from deep in his gut. Even though he had succeeded in manipulating Chase, he felt like his choice may not have been the correct one. Was he only delaying the inevitable, or would he get away with murder yet again? There was nothing else he could do now, short of walking back into the precinct and surrendering himself to fate.
Climbing into the Prius, he could feel Owen staring, waiting in anticipation to hear what had happened after confessing to an agent with the FBI. Ethan looked straight ahead and acted as if everything was fine. “We’re good. Let’s get back to the office.”
Owen continued to stare at him, unwilling to accept such a nonchalant answer. “What do you mean we’re good? What happened? You didn’t tell him, did you?”
Looking ahead through the windshield, he noticed small raindrops speckling the glass. Thinking deeply about what his next move would be, he became mesmerized by drops that merged together, forming a larger droplet that slid down the glass, leaving a streak of water behind it. For a short-lived moment, he was at peace.
He finally decided to turn and face Owen. “Look, man. I couldn’t do it. I don’t want to be taken away from Maria and Renee. I don’t think I deserve to be punished for taking matters into my own hands. These disgusting human beings that we have to deal with all the time, they don’t all deserve the benefits of our justice system. You know as well as I do, Owen.”
“I completely understand where you’re coming from, but this Roger guy is still out there. What the hell do you plan on doing about him, Ethan?”
He could see how concerned Owen was, but he didn’t have an answer to that question yet. “I don’t know yet. I need to find him before he comes after me, though. I guess I’ll have to start with his apartment, and I could call around to the nearest hospitals and see if anyone’s had several broken fingers set recently?”
Owen shook his head with disapproval. “It’s one hell of a mess you’ve gotten yourself into. I’ll do anything I can to help, bro. You, Maria, and Renee are like family to me.”
“Thanks, buddy. I appreciate that. I’ve always thought of you as my half-retarded brother.”
After Owen started the car, he turned on the windshield wipers, wiping away the droplets Ethan had focused so hard on. “Ready to go get a new set of tires?”
“Yeah, let’s head over to the tire place and pick some up so I can change them before it gets dark.”
Owen drove out of the police station parking lot and onto the main road. The two of them sat in silence as there was nothing left to talk about. Ethan just looked out the window and watched the rain pick up, bombarding the Prius with hundreds of drops per second. The sound of the drops landing on the roof and windows reminded Ethan of his wedding day, when dozens of people threw handfuls of rice at them while climbing into a limo.
Vibrations began traveling through the seat of Ethan’s pants, shaking off the drowsiness that was slowly overtaking him. He had placed his phone on vibrate before meeting with Chase. Pulling out his phone to see who was calling, no name was displayed because it was an unknown caller.
Being in no mood and assuming it was a salesman of some sort, he answered the call ready to tell the individual off. “Hello, this is Mr. Harper.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Harper. How has your morning been? Get your tires fixed yet?” the voice said.
He sat up straight in his seat, alert and nervous because he recognized the voice on the other end. “I’m still working on it. What the hell do you want, Roger?”
“I’m glad you recognize my voice. Makes me feel so special. I just wanted to call and tell you how impressed I am with your home. Simple, yet elegant. Your wife is quite sexy, too. Do I detect a little Latin flavor?” Roger said, followed by a maniacal laugh. “Don’t worry though, I’m more interested in meeting your delectable daughter.”
“Don’t you fucking touch them!” he shouted.
Startled by his shouting, Owen turned the wheel and pulled over to the side of the road.
“What do you want, Roger? I’ll do whatever you want, just leave my family alone.” Ethan pressed the phone against his chest. “Owen, drive to my house, now,” he said before placing the phone back to his ear.
“Come on, Ethan. I told you that I would make you regret attacking me. You should have known not to fuck with me, and now you will.”
“If you come anywhere near them, I will tear you apart,” Ethan said in desperation, feeling completely helpless. “I’ll let you do whatever you want to me.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not finished with you yet. This is only the beginning,” Roger said before hanging up.
The receiver went silent. “Roger? Roger!” He received no response.
Panicking in the passenger seat next to Owen, he couldn’t avoid becoming hostile. “Drive faster, dammit!”
“I’m going as fast as I can, Ethan. We’re five minutes away!” Owen shouted back.
Ethan used his phone to dial Maria’s number. As soon as she answered the phone, he began talking before she could give a proper greeting. “Maria, get Renee by your side and call the police, now. Stay on the line with them until I get there. I’m just a few minutes away.”
“What are you talking about? Are we in danger?” Maria said, sounding dismayed.
“I think there’s a man outside. Whatever you do, don’t answer the door,” he demanded.
“Renee!” Maria shouted. “Get over here, now!”
“Is Renee with you yet?”
“Yes, she’s here now.”
Ethan heard a knock on the door in the background.
“Shit, you’re right, Ethan. Someone’s at the door,” she said, her voice shaky.
“Just don’t answer the door and stay on the line. I’m right down the street, honey.”
Approaching Ethan’s neighborhood, he had line of sight of his house, but it was surrounded by a six-foot brick wall. The entrance was around the block, so it would take another one to two minutes to arrive. He became anxious because his backyard was only a few feet away.
Maria and Renee’s screams echoed out of the cell phone as the knocking in the background turned into a violent banging. “I think he’s trying to break in!” Maria said.
Ethan’s heart skipped a beat and a sense of desperate urgency overwhelmed him. Thinking quickly but illogically, he reached over and grabbed the steering wheel, yanking it so that the car steered into the brick wall. He pressed his foot down on top of Owen’s to accelerate faster. Before impact, he used one hand to pull Owen’s head down as he himself ducked low.
The Prius smashed through the wall, crushing the front end like an aluminum can and shattering the windshield into one large spider web of tiny glass shards. Both the driver and passenger airbags inflated, thrusting both men back against their seats. The vehicle rolled to a stop on the lawn as the force from the wall severely slowed their momentum.
Ethan felt a stinging sensation on the right side of his face, immediately after the airbag deployed. He could also taste the blood that began to seep out of his lip, a wound reopened by the impact. Looking over to the driver’s side, he could not see Owen’s face because it was obscured by the airbag, but he was conscious and opening the door to get out.
Ethan climbed out of the car as fast as he could, running toward Maria and Renee as they came running outside.
“What the hell just happened?” Maria said.
Ethan wrapped his arms around them both. “I couldn’t waste any time. I thought Roger was inside already. I just imagined how it would only take a second for him to hurt or take you both, so I couldn’t wait another second to drive around the block,” Ethan said, trying to catch his breath.
“He didn’t come in. I think he’s gone.”
Owen stood over the hood of his car, struggling to comprehend what had just happened. He slowly looked over at Ethan. “Dude. What the fuck was that?”
Ethan curled his lips inward, making a popping sound as his mouth opened. “I’ll fix it, buddy. Promise.”
Everyone stared in awe at the hole in the wall that the Prius had made, then they turned toward Ethan. Maria was the first one to break the shocked silence. “I’ll call the police.”
Ethan gave Owen some space, allowing him time to examine the damage that his car had sustained. While Maria was on the phone with the police, he marched toward the front door, fuming. Throwing the door open, he scanned the neighborhood for any sign of the disturbed son of a bitch. The only thing he found was a large, orange envelope that had been left on his porch.
Reaching down, he slowly and carefully picked the envelope up by the corner, discovering that it was light as if nothing were inside. Hesitantly, he reached his hand in and pulled out a child’s pair of panties. He uncomfortably placed it back in the envelope and dropped it on the porch where he had found it.
Now was the time. He had fought hard to keep reality at bay, but with the police on their way and a vengeful sociopath on the loose, the truth needed to be told.
He couldn’t blame just one stupid mistake on his current predicament, but rather a series of bad choices fueled by the demented and evil people he had dealt with during his crusade to save all children. If his actions were no better than the crimes against humanity that those individuals committed, then he couldn’t see it.
As Maria finished her call to emergency services, Ethan pulled out his phone and called Chase. “Agent Ramsey, this is Ethan Harper. I need you to come to my house so that I can speak with you. I haven’t been completely honest with you, and I need to tell you the truth.”
“It’s about time, Mr. Harper. I’m on my way,” Chase said, refraining from asking any questions over the phone.
Ethan didn’t realize he had been that obvious, but then again, Chase was an FBI investigator. While Chase would decide his fate in life, God was the only one that could judge him after death. He regretted some of his actions, but still felt that everything he had done was in the best interest of the children. Now, he needed to protect his own family at any cost.