Charlene sat in her parked car, staring at the yellow brick building, thinking how drab it was. Drab, boring, no character to it at all, just like the rest of the town. It had replaced the original two-story stone courthouse even before her time, but she had seen pictures—mostly on postcards—of the original; it had always reminded her of an old castle. She had imagined the interior of it busy with queens and princesses, and ladies-in-waiting, all dressed in elegant, full gowns, though she knew no such people had ever lived there. It was merely an office building, designed for its time, and years later razed rather than repaired, and replaced with the dreary building she now had second thoughts about entering.
Across the street stood the remaining structure known as The Duke’s Castle, built in the early 1900′s, around the same time as the original castle-style courthouse. The owner, supposedly some duke from Europe, had modeled it after his family home. Part of it had burned down years later. It had never been repaired, but remained, just as the old, now remodeled hotel she had checked into after leaving the cemetery, reminders of the history of the town in its more glorious days.
She was confident Roy was inside the courthouse. She had driven a full circle around the one-story building before settling on a parking space in front of it. Three County Sheriff vehicles were parked on the left side of the building. She recognized one as his by the vehicle number on the side—CC01, which she had noticed while it was parked at the cemetery.
What if he was busy? How would he feel about her just showing up?
There was only one way to find out. She had to go inside. She had driven 520 miles to see him. And she had nothing better to do besides sit in the hotel courtyard and people watch—and there didn’t seem to be any people around to watch. The clerk at the desk had said she was in luck; they’d just had a cancellation. She’d doubted it was completely booked for the night; if so, the guests had yet to arrive. She’d packed no book to read. She’d made the decision to come the evening before, and had quickly packed a bag, jumped in her car, and headed out of town before she’d had time to chicken out. Now she was there, sitting outside Roy’s office, wanting to chicken out of going in to see him.
She made a quick check in the mirror before forcing herself out of the car. When she reached the front entrance of the building, a senior man came strolling out.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said, tilting his worn, grimy cowboy hat at her. His smile exposed stained, crooked teeth, with several missing. “Beautiful, day, ain’t it.”
She winced as he passed, her hand reflexively covering her nose. The stench was ungodly.
Upon entering the building, she was met by a man she guessed to be in his early thirties, dressed in the same uniform as the deputy she had met outside the grocery store earlier in the day. He was nice-looking, well-built. No one she had seen so far in Roy’s department, including Roy himself, appeared to spend their spare time downing donuts.
“How do, ma’am. If I could just see your bag there, please.”
It took her a second to realize he wanted her handbag to scan it. She hadn’t thought about having to go through a security check, but it was a courthouse after all, why wouldn’t she? She placed her bag on the small table in front of him and watched as he scanned it.
“What do we have here?” he asked, rummaging through it and pulling out a corkscrew. “Sorry, ma’am, but I can’t let you inside with this.”
Now flustered on top of being nervous about even being there, she felt the sudden onset of moisture under her armpits. She had made a joke at the cemetery about Roy tossing her in jail, and now it was going to happen, not for imaginary outstanding arrest warrants, but for bringing a deadly weapon into the county courthouse.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t remember it being in there.” She felt a drop of perspiration trickle down her side inside her sweater.
The officer smiled. “Well, I’ll just hold on to it. You can have it back when you leave.”
“Just toss it. I don’t need it.”
“Well, you never know. But whatever you wish.” He dropped it in a trashcan behind him, then directed her to pass through the metal detector. It beeped when she did.
He motioned to her. “Step back on this side, please, ma’am.”
Meanwhile, a middle-aged couple had entered, dressed in worn jeans, tee-shirts, and scuffed cowboy boots. She suddenly felt overdressed in her cropped cashmere sweater and knee-length pencil skirt. At least she had gone with flats over the heeled dress boots she’d packed.
The couple frowned at her, then approached the deputy.
“Can we just pass, Tommy? You know we won’t beep. And we don’t have all day.”
“Do you mind, ma’am?” Deputy Tommy asked Charlene.
“No. Please. By all means. I’m in no rush.” She waved her hand for them to pass through as she stepped out of the way.
Glancing at her watch, she began to fret. What if she missed Roy while she was trying to get past his darn security? She’d noticed a door on the side of the building where his vehicle was parked. It had been marked Employees Only, No Entrance. What if he exited through that door before she made it to his office? She had no personal phone number for him and no idea where he lived.
The couple passed through, one at a time, without beeping, offering no thank you to Charlene for allowing them ahead of her. As they walked off, the woman could be heard saying, “I bet that’s her fancy car out there.”
“It is! Eat your heart out, sweetheart!” Charlene wanted to yell out to the woman. She refrained. She was already creating more attention than she wanted.
“Sorry, ma’am, not everyone around here is as rude as the McElroys,” Deputy Tommy said. “I think your jewelry is the problem. If you could remove it and drop it in this bowl. Then you can try again.”
She did as he requested, removing her watch and her charm bracelet, and dropping them into the bowl.
Her second passing went without issue. Once she had her handbag back in her possession, and her jewelry back on her wrists, she asked, “Could you tell me where I might find Sheriff Slater’s office?”
He pointed left. “Straight down that hallway, ma’am, all the way to the end, the last office on your right.”
“Thank you.” She headed in that direction, holding her elbows out from her sides to dry her underarms.
When she reached the last office on the right, apparently marked County Sheriff, with Roy T. Slater underneath that, she peeked inside the open door. Deputy Kellie was standing at the large desk, leaning over it, with her back to the door.
“Excuse me,” Charlene said, knocking softly on the door as she spoke.
The officer whipped around.
“Yes, can I help you?” she asked, her hands holding on to the desk behind her.
Charlene took a few steps inside the office. “Umm—I was looking for Sheriff Slater. Is he in?”
“Oh, it’s you!” The officer’s face brightened. “Hi. You look like you’re feeling better.”
“I am, thank you. So—is the Sheriff in?”
“He’s in the Judge’s Chambers at the moment.” The officer continued to smile as she seemed to study Charlene.
“Oh, okay. Thanks. I’ll just come back later.” Charlene turned to leave.
“No, no, don’t go. He should be back soon. You can wait in here if you’d like.” She turned back to the desk, picked up a large clear bag filled with assorted jelly beans, and held it up for Charlene to see. “I was just about to refill his jar. He likes these; I try to keep the jar full.”
“Black ones,” Charlene said, more to herself than aloud.
“Black ones. He likes the black ones best.” The words were out of Charlene’s mouth before she realized she had said them.
“Yes, that’s right. He does.”
Kellie poured the candies into a tall apothecary jar, then turned her attention back to Charlene, sitting on the edge of the desk as she did. She tilted her head to one side, her dimples deep.
“You and the Sheriff go way back.”
Charlene wasn’t sure if she meant it as a question or a statement. Either way, she was saved from replying by the interruption of a deep throat-clearing coming from the open doorway.
Kellie jumped to attention at the same time Charlene turned around.
“Sheriff. You have a visitor.”
“I see that,” Roy said, his eyes on Charlene. Charlene’s heart skipped a beat, just as it had when he’d walked into the coffee shop earlier that morning. “Don’t you have work to do across the hall, Deputy?”
“Not really,” Kellie replied.
Roy cleared his throat again.
“On second thought, I do have some paperwork I should be doing. Good to see you again, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Charlene replied.
When Kellie reached the door, and Roy, she stopped. “Oh, by the way, boss, I had to check some old notes to be sure, but I figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“That name that came up this morning.” Kellie glanced at Charlene, then back at Roy. Then she whispered something Charlene couldn’t quite hear but was almost sure it was the word "Facebook".
Roy gritted his teeth. “Get!”
With that, Kellie disappeared out the door. Roy turned his attention back to Charlene.
“I heard I had an attractive female visitor. I wondered if it might be you. You certainly look better than the last time I saw you.”
“That wasn’t too difficult to accomplish. I couldn’t look any worse.”
“So, you got some rest?” Roy asked as he approached his desk.
“Some. A nice long shower helped the most.”
Now standing behind his chair, he said, “Well, you look very pretty.”
“So, have a seat.” He motioned to one of two chairs in front of the desk.
“Are you sure I’m not keeping you from something?”
“I’m sure, sit.”
As she did, she took in the room. The furniture was simple, but adequate, functional. Several awards hung on the walls, as well as photos of Roy with fellow officers, as well as other local officials, including the town mayor. A medium-sized bookcase stood along the wall behind and to the right of Roy’s desk. It contained an assortment of hardbacks, mostly law books of different types; football trophies from high school and college; team photos as well as individual ones, and framed newspaper articles of the Championship win. Personal photos - family type snapshots - were noticeably missing.
Papers, folders, large coffee mug, pens, and other items cluttered the large desk. Charlene’s urge to straighten everything on it was intense. After hanging the long shoulder strap of her handbag on the arm of the chair, she reached over and straightened the wooden easel nameplate sitting in the middle of the desk, facing her. She ran her index over his name as she spoke.
“Your deputy is very pretty.”
“Yeah, I guess. A little too sassy sometimes.”
“She’s young. What, twenty-one, twenty-two?”
“I think she’s a little older than that. Why? Why the interest in her and her age?”
Charlene focused on a large, framed painting of Roy hanging on the wall behind him. He was dressed in similar clothes as this day - white, long-sleeved western-cut shirt, dark denim jeans, and black cowboy hat. It was an impressive painting, capturing his personality, the intensity of his blue eyes, eyes that seemed to be looking straight at her. She wondered who the artist was, what his/her relationship was to Roy. The wide, walnut wood frame hung crookedly on the wall. The bottom left corner needed to be raised about a quarter of an inch.
“Just trying to do the math, to see if she’s young enough to be your daughter.”
Roy sat up straight in his chair. “What? What the hell, Charlie? Hell no, she’s not my daughter! She’s certainly not young enough to be. I would have had to father her in high school, for Christ sake. And I was a one-woman man at that time, so unless she popped out of you, she sure as hell isn’t my daughter!”
Looking directly at him, Charlene asked, “What about now, Roy, are you a one-woman man now, with Denise?”
“That is none of your business.”
His attention suddenly turned to something behind her.
“Did you need something, Deputy Michaels?” he asked, his voice loud and full of irritation.
Kellie peeked in the door. “No, sir.”
“Then close the damn door, and get back to your desk, before I fire your ass!”
“Yes, sir.” She reached in for the doorknob, flashed a quick smile at Charlene, and closed the door.
Roy ran his hand over his brow and through his hair. “Damn! What is wrong with you women? You’re asking me ridiculous questions about kids, and my deputy is eavesdropping outside the door. What the hell is going on, is there a full moon or something I don’t know about?”
Aware she was treading on thin ice, Charlene continued to push the subject. “No little Roy Juniors running around town then?”
Roy sat back in his chair, hands crossed behind his head. “None that I’m aware of. So, spill it, Charlie, what’s up with these ridiculous questions?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Just wondering, that’s all. I just always pictured you with a son, throwing footballs with him in the backyard.”
“Yeah, well, I had visions of that too. But it never happened. Of course, a lot of things I had planned didn’t happen.” His eyes grabbed hers, refused to let go. She saw no hate in them, no bitterness.
The disappointment she saw in them ripped at her gut. Roy had every reason to hate her. He didn’t seem to, not at this moment anyway, and not earlier at the cemetery. But he would hate her when she confessed what she had done, what she had kept from him for so many years.
He finally broke their gaze and the silence that had followed his last comment, as he shuffled some papers in front of him. “How about you? Pop out any kids since you were here last?”
“Yes, actually, I did. One. I have a daughter.” She reached into her bag to retrieve her phone. She scrolled through the stored photos until she found the one she liked best. She showed the screen to Roy.“Alexandra.”
Roy took the phone from her, studied the photo, then glanced back at Charlene.
“She’s pretty. Looks a lot like her mom.”
“I think she looks more like her dad. She has his personality.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that. Never met the guy. I am sorry for his death though. What—?”
“Cancer.” She offered nothing more in response, not wanting to get into the details of it.
“Yes, it was.”
He handed the phone back to her. “How old is she, your daughter?”
“She just turned ten.”
“So, where is she? Off at some fancy boarding school?”
Charlene laughed. “No, actually she’s at the State Fair in Dallas with friends. Has been all day. Probably pigging out on corny dogs and fried ice cream, and Lord knows what else. It’s her school’s Fair Day, and her best friend’s birthday, so it’s a full weekend celebration, including sleepovers last night and tonight.”
Roy chuckled. “Sounds like brave parents.”
“Yes. More so than me.”
“She must really miss her dad.”
Charlene spoke quietly, solemnly, staring down at the phone still in her hand. They both sat in silence for several seconds. After returning her cellphone to her bag, she scooted to the edge of her seat, reached over and scooped up a handful of jellybeans from the open jar. She opened her hand, checking the color of the candies she held. She extended it toward Roy.
“Want the black ones?”
“Sure.” He helped himself to the four black jellybeans in her hand, popped them in his mouth. “Alexandra, huh? Pretty name.”
“She goes by Alex. It fits her more.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Because she’s more tomboyish than girlie. Prefers sports over ballet.”
“Well, she doesn’t take after her mom there for sure. As I remember you never could catch a football.”
“That’s because you always threw it too hard.”
“Probably. You were kind of awkward, though. Delicate. Fragile.”
“Nice words for timid, mousy, clumsy.”
“No, Charlie. You were just different than the other girls. Special. That was part of what I loved about you.”
There was a sudden knock on the door.
Roy frowned, blew out air from his cheeks. “What?”
The door opened, and Kellie stepped inside.
“Sorry to interrupt, boss, but we’ve got an eighteen-wheeler with a blowout on the westbound I-10. Higgins is on his way out to assist. I thought I’d go help.”
“Great. That’s just what we need with everyone coming in from Alpine for the game. Go. Get it cleared up.”
“Will do, boss.” She turned to leave.
“Kellie,” he called out to her. “Be careful out there. Call if you guys need me.”
When Kellie left, closing the door behind her, Charlene removed the strap of her bag from the arm of the chair and stood. “I should go, get out of your way, let you work.”
Roy pushed his chair back and stood as well. “So, what do you think?”
“About going to the homecoming game tonight.”
She started to ask about Denise, but decided against it, chose to flirt with him instead.
“Well, I don’t know, Sheriff. Will I get a homecoming mum?”
Homecoming mums were a Texas tradition, and no girl wanted to show up at the game without one. It was a sure sign she didn’t have a boyfriend if she did. Charlene had a boyfriend, at least once Roy’s family moved to Valhorne the summer before his junior year so he could play eleven-man football instead of the six-man football played in his hometown thirty miles to the west. She had seen the mums in the florist section of the grocery store when she purchased flowers for her parents’ graves that morning. She had tried to ignore them, tried to not think of the ones Roy had given her. They were always large, with lots of long ribbon in the school colors, a white mum in the center bearing his jersey number 07, and each of their names spelled along one ribbon. And several little white bears.
Roy laughed. “Well, they may be hard to come by this late, but I’ll see what I can do. How about dinner before the game? I mean, might as well, we’ll both want to eat before the game, unless you’d prefer a hot dog at the game—”
“Dinner before the game would be nice, Roy.”
He walked her to the door. “Six okay?”
“Yes, and I’m staying at the old hotel as you suggested.”
“Good. Then I’ll pick you up there at six.”
To her surprise, he reached over, touched her face, caressed her cheek. Then he leaned in and kissed her.
He quickly dropped his hand, took a step back.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. It just kinda happened. Guess old habits are hard to break.”
He reached for the door and opened it. “Six, then.” He stood, waiting for her to exit.
She stepped across the threshold, then turned back just as he closed the door behind her.