Officer Quint unfolded his body and wiped vomit from his lips with a handkerchief. Lightening flashed in the east and thunder rumbled a posthumous threat. In the ensuing darkness, red and blue lights flashed his shadow on the wet grass. As he turned, the lights of a silent ambulance bounced across the long stretch of pasture between the highway and the mangled car. There was no need to rush. They could do nothing for the occupants.
The night was alive with flashing lights and cameras. Rain still fell at a steady rate, but not like the earlier downpour driven by wind. The train crouched silent on the tracks in a feline pose, as if hovering over a kill. Behind it, sixteen cars were jammed together all the way back to the highway. Headlights were backed up as far as the eye could see, waiting impatiently for someone to direct them away from the gridlock. As bad as the wreck was, it could have been worse. The train didn’t derail...and she wasn’t in the car.
Officer Lathum met him half way to the car and lifted a bushy gray brow. “I’m going to jump to the conclusion that this is either your first fatality, or you know these people.” His tone hung somewhere between sarcastic and annoyed. His reputation for being rough on rookies was well earned. It must have worked, because his trainees were some of the best officers.
Quint dropped his head. “I know them.”
Lathum’s tone lost some of the edge. “I’m sorry about that, boy. Do you want a replacement?”
“No.” Quint straightened and lifted his chin. “I can handle it...now.”
Lathum walked beside him to their patrol car and picked up a tablet. “Give me some information. What were their names and where do they live. Do they have relatives close?”
“Their last name is Anderson. The driver’s name is John – he’s the father, and the mother’s name is Marie.”
Lathum scribbled on the pad, confirming as he wrote. “Driver John Anderson, passenger side wife, Marie Anderson?”
“Yes. The girl is Angela and the boy is Nick...Nicholas.”
“How old is the girl?”
“Thirteen, I think. The boy just turned six.”
“Next of kin?”
“Their oldest daughter, Lisa.”
Lathum’s pale blue gaze lifted from the tablet and searched Quint’s. “How old?”
“I dated her a few times, but she was way out of my league.”
Lathum returned his attention to the tablet and snorted. “I doubt that. Not if you judge by the car and their clothes.”
Quint knew he should quell the ire that surged up and pounded in his neck. He barely recognized his cold voice as the retort forced its way out. “Well sir, I don’t judge people by the clothes on their backs and the cars they drive.”
Lathum glanced up sharply, his expression unreadable. For one horrible long moment he was silent. Finally he shrugged. “Fair enough. So why did you think she was out of your league?”
Quint slowly let out his breath. “Well, for starters, I’d have had to compete with every other guy in school. I graduated two years ahead of her and didn’t keep in touch. I’m nothing special. Not like her.” It was hard to explain how Lisa’s beauty was different than so many others, but it was. She could have been a model. The soft curves on that tall slender body and those long legs were the talk of the locker room when he was a senior. She was two years younger then. That wide-eyed innocent look and those full lips reminded him of a fairytale princess. Even the way she wore her hair, with those braids wrapped around the top of her head like a crown and the long shiny blond curls falling around her shoulders and down her back – she wasn’t simply beautiful. She was exquisite. Now she had matured into an even more beautiful woman. Her voice was soft and full of music.
Lathum interrupted his thoughts. “But Mertz was good enough for her? Why, because he is the son of a prominent family doctor? Yet he was arrested last week for selling drugs to kids like little Nicholas over there?” His thumb jerked back to acknowledge Nick for the first time. “I thought you didn’t judge people by their pocketbooks.”
Quint felt the warmth flow into his face. Officer Lathum didn’t recognize the people in the car and knew nothing about the family, but it sounded like he was well informed, or maybe misinformed, about the incident involving Lisa. No one was there to explain Lisa’s side and he felt compelled to defend her.
“She didn’t know anything about what he was doing.”
Lathum dismissed the subject with a shrug. “Any idea where she is tonight?”
“Maybe at home. I heard she was pretty humiliated when she found out.”
“Well, she’s got something to take her mind off it now.” His voice was terse. “What’s she like? Will she get hysterical when you tell her?”
“Me?” The idea of talking to her again was unsettling enough, but to tell her something like this? “I don’t know her that well.”
Lathum eyed him with poorly veiled amusement. “Good, that should make this easier.” He started to turn and then stopped, his expression sober. “Better drop by and get Howard Spencer. Take him along just in case. From what I’ve heard, he and Miss Anderson are more than friends.”
Spencer and Lisa? Since when? Quint nodded and turned to the patrol car. Howard was the brother of her best friend, Connie. According to Lisa, they were the closest thing to a family that she had other than her parents and siblings. Spencer was nearly ten years older than her, but maybe she liked older men. Some women did. He was a lawyer with a growing reputation and she did work at his law firm last summer. No doubt Lathum thought she should have representation in case she might say something incriminating that might be ruled out in court because she was in a state of shock.
He reached for the door, doubt twisting his guts. One thing about Lathum, he had an uncanny way of being right about people. If Lisa was involved with both Spencer and Mertz, maybe she was an informant for Spencer. On the other hand, maybe Mertz figured she’d make a great decoy. She wouldn’t have any trouble distracting a man, that was for sure. Of course, there was always the possibility that she had come up with the idea of distracting Spencer, but he found that hard to believe. It was totally out of character for her...or was it? A person could change a lot in a few years, especially when they were that young. Maybe Lathum had a point.
He clutched the wet door handle, the click of the latch bringing his mind back to the present. He turned back to Lathum. “Sir, if I take the car, how are you...”
Lathum waved a hand in dismissal; his mind already firmly entrenched in another project. “I’ll ride with the last ambulance. Right now we have to do something about this traffic.” He walked away with his clipboard in hand, barking some orders at another officer.
Quint dropped into the seat and started the engine. He felt sick to his stomach again. It wasn’t jealousy that troubled him. It was the idea of being deceived. But then, all he’d seen in the last few weeks had certainly burned a hole in his confidence about knowing people. Being around Lathum had opened his eyes to the number of people who deceive and are deceived.
He turned the car toward the Spencer home. Right now he was wondering if he had chosen the right occupation. He’d like to believe in good and the happy-ever-after, but that innocence could never be retrieved.