It wasn’t a long commute between Tom VanAllen’s home and the FBI’s field office in Lafayette. Often, he considered it not long enough. It was the only time of his day in which he could switch off and think of nothing more complicated than to stay in his lane and drive within the speed limit.
He wheeled into his driveway and acknowledged that his house looked a little tired and sad compared to others in the neighborhood. But when would he have time to do repairs or repaint when something as necessary as mowing the lawn was only done sporadically?
By the time he entered through the front door, those self-castigating thoughts had already been pushed aside by the urgency of the situation in Tambour.
Janice, having heard him come in, hurried into the entryway, cell phone in hand. “I was just about to call you to ask when you’d be home for lunch.”
“I didn’t come home to eat.” He took off his suit jacket and hung it on the hall tree. “That multiple murder in Tambour—”
“It’s all over the news. The guy hasn’t been caught yet?”
He shook his head. “I’ve got to go down there myself.”
“Why must you? You dispatched agents early this morning.”
Royale Trucking Company conducted interstate trade. When the carnage was discovered inside the warehouse, Tom, as agent in charge of the field office, had been notified. “It’s politic for me to review the situation in person. How’s Lanny today?”
“Like he is any other day.”
Tom pretended not to hear the bitterness underlying his wife’s voice as he headed down the central hallway toward the room at the back of the house where their thirteen-year-old son was confined.
In fact, where he and Janice were also confined. Sadly, this room was at the epicenter of their lives, their marriage, their future.
An aberrant accident in the birth canal had cut off their son’s oxygen and left him with severe brain damage. He didn’t speak, or walk, or even sit alone. His responses to any stimuli were limited to blinking his eyes, but only on occasion, and to making a guttural sound, the meaning of which neither Tom nor Janice would ever be able to interpret. They had no way of knowing if he even recognized them by sight, or sound, or touch.
“He’s soiled himself,” Tom said upon entering the room and being hit with the odor.
“I checked him five minutes ago,” Janice said defensively. “I changed the sheets on his bed this morning and—”
“That’s a two-person job. You should have waited for me to help you.”
“Well, that could have been a wait, couldn’t it?”
Quietly Tom said, “I had to leave earlier than usual this morning, Janice. I had no choice.”
She blew out a gust of air. “I know. I’m sorry. But after changing his bed, I had to do laundry. It’s not even lunchtime, and I’m exhausted.”
He stayed her as she moved toward the bed. “I’ll take care of this.”
“You’re in a hurry to get away.”
“Five minutes won’t matter. Will you fix me a sandwich, please? I’ll eat it on the way down to Tambour.”
After seeing to Lanny, he went into their bedroom and changed out of his suit and into outdoor clothes. Before day’s end, he would probably be called upon to join the manhunt. He had little or nothing to contribute to such an undertaking, but he would make the gesture of pitching in.
He dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved white shirt, and slipped on an old pair of sneakers, reminding himself to check the trunk of his car for the rubber boots he used to wear whenever he went fishing.
He used to do a lot of things he no longer did.
When he walked into the kitchen, Janice’s back was to him. She was preoccupied with making his sandwich so he studied her for several seconds without her being aware of it.
She hadn’t retained the prettiness that she’d had when they first met. The thirteen years since Lanny’s birth had taken a visible toll. Her movements were no longer graceful and fluid, but efficient and brisk, as though if she didn’t hurry up and accomplish the task at hand, she would lose the wherewithal to do it.
The slender young body she’d boasted had been whittled away and now she could be described as gaunt. Work and worry had etched lines around her eyes, and the lips that had always been on the verge of smiling were perpetually drawn with disappointment.
Tom didn’t blame her for these changes in her appearance. The changes in him were just as disagreeable. Unhappiness and hopelessness were stamped indelibly onto their faces. Worse, the changes weren’t only physical. Their love for each other had been drastically altered by the ongoing tragedy that their life together had become. The love he felt for Janice now was based more on pity than passion.
When first married, they’d shared an interest in jazz, movies, and Tuscan cooking. They’d planned to spend a summer in Italy attending cooking classes and drinking the regional vintages during sun-drenched afternoons.
That was just one of their dreams that had been shattered.
Every single day Tom asked himself how long they could go on in their present state. Something must change. Tom knew it. He figured Janice did, too. But neither wanted to be the first to wave a white flag on their commitment to their helpless son. Neither wanted to be the first to say, “I can’t do this any longer,” and suggest doing what they had pledged never to do, which was to place him in a special care facility.
The good ones were private and therefore costly. But the exorbitant expense was only one obstacle. Tom wasn’t certain what Janice’s reaction would be if he suggested they amend their original policy regarding Lanny’s care. He was afraid she would talk him out of it. And equally afraid that she wouldn’t.
Sensing his presence, she glanced over her shoulder. “Ham and cheese with brown mustard?”
She folded plastic wrap around the sandwich. “Do you plan to stay away overnight?”
“I can’t leave you alone with Lanny for that long.”
“I would manage.”
Tom shook his head. “I’ll come back. Fred Hawkins will share with me all his case notes.”
“You mean the oracle of the Tambour Police Department?”
Her sarcasm made him smile. She’d known the Hawkins twins from her last year of high school, when her father had decided to move “to the country” and had taken Janice out of the parochial academy in New Orleans and transferred her to the public school in Tambour. While the distance wasn’t that far, the two environments had been worlds apart.
Janice had experienced a reeling culture shock and had never quite forgiven her parents for uprooting her during that all-important senior year and transplanting her in “Bubbaville.” She considered everyone in Tambour a hick, starting with, and in particular, Fred Hawkins and his twin, Doral. It amazed her that one had become an officer of the law, the other a city official. Even by Tambour’s standards, the twins had exceeded her expectations of them.
“Everybody in Tambour wants the head of Sam Marset’s killer on a pike, and they’re breathing down Fred’s collar to get it,” Tom told her. “The coroner estimates time of death for all seven victims at around midnight, so Fred is”—he glanced at the clock on the microwave oven—“almost twelve hours into the investigation, and he doesn’t have any substantial leads.”
Janice winced. “The scene was described as a bloodbath.”
“The photos my men sent back weren’t pretty.”
“What was the owner of the company doing in the warehouse at that time of night?”
“That struck Fred as odd, too. Mrs. Marset was of no help because she was out of town. Fred’s thinking is that maybe this Coburn created some kind of problem, got into a fight with a coworker, something serious enough for the foreman to call Marset. They’ll check phone records, but a reason for Marset’s being there at that unusual hour hasn’t been established yet.”
“Is Lee Coburn a habitual troublemaker?”
“His employment record didn’t indicate that. But no one claims to know him well.”
“I gathered that by Fred’s press conference. Beyond a description and a police artist sketch, they don’t seem to have much.”