Lifeline
Chapter 16

I survived a sleepless night and managed to get Lauren to preschool on time. I got to the courthouse and headed straight for Jane Cummings' office. She wasn't in yet but I saw one of her investigators and motioned him over.

"Any luck with the second video?" I asked urgently.

"None," he said. "I'm headed out to the motel to see if they have a backup copy. I doubt they do. Most of those places don't keep surveillance video very long."

"I have to have that video," I declared.

"It doesn't matter, man," the man said with a shrug. "Jane told us the case against your guy is done. Besides, the quality of the one from the lobby isn't going to be any better."

"My guy says it will be," I insisted. "He does that sort of stuff for a living. The owners don't care about who comes or goes – or what they get up to while they're there – but they do care about someone trying to rob them or a desk clerk stealing from the till. He says the one in the lobby will be clear enough that we can see who is coming and going."

"Like I said, I'm headed out there as soon as Jane gets in," the man told me. "I'll let you know."

"My guy went out there yesterday but I haven't heard from him," I said. "If he has a copy, I'll give you a call so you don't waste your time. Let me ask you this: Can you pull traffic camera footage from that area for the hours of midnight to five a.m. Saturday?"

"I have all that," the man admitted. "There is nothing on it. That's a well-travelled highway and it was Friday night."

"I want you to look for a gray Ford Escape with government tags," I confided.

"Government tags?" he asked incredulously. "Like the feds?"

"Like the county," I said. "I saw something last night on the first video that sparked my interest."

"You couldn't see shit on that video," the man countered.

"You forget, I'm familiar with many of the players in this little drama," I rebutted. "Sure, I couldn't make out faces but I recognized Wells when he went in. I also think I recognize someone else on the video and I'm positive I recognized a county vehicle stop and pick someone up. I'll buy you a case of beer if you don't find a county vehicle near that hotel a little before 5 a.m. Saturday. I will buy you a case of steaks to go along with that beer if you can get me a tag or a photo of the vehicle's occupants."

The man stood blinking at me.

"You have a theory?" he asked.

"I have a million theories," I said. "But this one is the one with so many things that don't make sense. It's Saturday morning. Why would someone from the county be out that way?"

"Seriously?" the man asked. "Dude, it's a high-crime area. The guy could have been a cop or he could have been someone from the assessor's office looking to score."

"At five in the morning?" I asked. I had left out one vital piece of information. The man wasn't from the county and he had no way of knowing that the only agency that used the gray Ford Escape was the undercover narcotics squad – Elizabeth's Task Force.

"You're on for the bet," the man said. "But don't count on me to pay up if I don't find anything."

"You'll find something," I promised. "If you can't pull a tag or a driver, let my guy have a crack at it. He's pretty good."

"Our guy is pretty good, too," the investigator assured me. I clapped him on the shoulder and walked down the hallway to the office I was using.

Jenny and Michelle were already inside and appeared poised for whatever task I sent their way.

"Did either of you hear from Mark or Lucy last night?" I asked.

"Mark called," Jenny admitted. "He said the motel clerk had no idea where the old surveillance discs were. He was going to check with the day manager and give us a call."

I noticed she was looking over my shoulder as she spoke and I turned to find someone else in the room. It was someone I hadn't expected – Elizabeth.

"Do you have a little while?" she asked.

I nodded and gestured to my office. She was already seated when I got inside and hung up my suit coat.

"I screwed up," she said before I could sit down.

"Yeah, I got that part," I said with a frown. "My question is: How badly did you screw up?"

"You've pretty well laid it out for me, so I guess you know," Elizabeth replied. She looked as tired as I did and she seemed smaller today that she had the day before.

I paused before I answered.

"I guess my question is whether you were content to destroy your livelihood or you decided to add ruining your marriage to the mix, as well," I said. I watched her face as the words registered and her eyes jerked upward to meet mine.

"What does that mean?" she asked. I saw her throat bob as she swallowed hard. Her father had once told me that the gesture was a sure sign someone was about to lie. "I know I was hard on you yesterday but I was just being pulled in so many directions. I've worked with those guys for six or seven years. It just seems wrong to hang them out to dry. You were a cop once, surely you can appreciate that."

"I wasn't referring to your actions yesterday," I answered. "I was referring to previous actions you might have had with Task Force members – specifically Paul Scarborough."

"Paul?" Elizabeth asked. "Ben, I don't understand. Until Hunt had Lauren Senior arrested, I never interacted with Paul. He only got moved into the chain of command after he was outed from his undercover assignment."

"So it's only been going on for a few months?" I asked.

Elizabeth tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. I could see confusion on her face.

"Just ask me what you want to ask me," she said. "You didn't mince words yesterday so don't mince them now."

"Are you having an affair with him?" I asked. There. It was out in the open.

"No," Elizabeth said loudly and firmly.

"Does he know that?" I wondered. I related my impressions from our meeting the day before. I had first seen Paul Scarborough at Lauren's preliminary hearing. It was the first time I could recall hearing his name mentioned in our household. I had been largely absent from my family life since the Huntley case came along – which also corresponded with Scarborough's return to office duties for the Task Force.

"It was a drunken thing in college," Elizabeth finally admitted. "He was already on the force and I was at the university. Dad was a cop so I took some friends of mine to a cop bar one night. Paul was there and, well, we hooked up. It was one night 15 years ago. I didn't even remember him until he brought it up a few months ago. He flirts with me. That's all."

"Uh-huh," I said. "You might want to mention it's a bad idea to continue to flirt with you while your husband is in the room. I'm not a bad-ass like you are but you'll recall I kicked the shit out of Biff Wells once upon a time and he's twice Scarborough's size."

"Is that what this is about?" Elizabeth asked. "You were jealous of some long-forgotten guy?"

"You were not exactly happy to see Pam attempt to resurrect old memories," I said. I swear to God, Elizabeth actually blushed. It was the first time I'd seen it. It might have been the first time it happened.

"Yeah, fine," she said. "I would have kicked her ass if she would have pulled that shit with you. The truth is, I was a little flattered. I'm not 22 or 23 anymore. I should have put a stop to it. At the very least, I should have told you it was happening. Shit. I can't believe you thought I'd do something like that."

"Uh, if you will recall... , " I began.

"Yeah, the Michelle thing," Elizabeth said, her face reddening again. I wondered if she was going to need a transfusion from the blood going to places it wasn't used to going. "Shit. Alright, fine. You got me there, too. I'm no better than you. There. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"It was more than how he acted," I said. "I am almost immune to men trying to flirt with you. It happens all the time and you usually just ignore it. This time, you didn't. You also appeared to be giving more value to his opinion than to mine."

"It's because he was telling me what I wanted to hear!" Elizabeth said. "I didn't want to hear that I was going to be out of a job and staring at prison in a few weeks. I wanted to hear that everything was going to be fine. I talked to Dad last night after you got off the phone with him. I didn't know about a second video. I honestly didn't know much at all about this case. As soon as I was pulled, I stepped away. The fraudulent information you and Jane received did not come from my office. That was put together solely by the Task Force members."

"Do you expect people to believe that?" I wondered. "I mean, sure, I might. I'm your husband. But you're going to have something a little more convincing for the people who come to investigate things."

"I have nothing more to give," Elizabeth admitted.

"What about the other cases?" I asked.

"I do not have any knowledge of any falsified documents being presented in other cases," she said.

"Sounds like you're ready to testify in front of a sub-committee," I noted. "OK, let me ask you this. If you didn't tamper with the Huntley evidence, how did you know it was tampered with?"

Elizabeth let out a long breath and looked at me hard. It took her almost a full minute to come to a decision.

"I broke into your office and looked at the case file," she admitted with downcast eyes. "I've known there was missing evidence since about a week after you took the case."

"And you said nothing about it?" I asked angrily.

"I asked the Task Force guys," Elizabeth said.

"I was speaking about me," I replied.

"No," Elizabeth agreed. "I couldn't very well tell you about it. After all, how would I know? I didn't want to admit that I had broken your trust so I went to Paul and confronted him. He told me that they gave you and Jane the same things so it shouldn't matter. He assured me that Huntley was the guy so I let it go. It's like you said, 'the ends justify the means.'"

"Except Huntley wasn't the guy," I said.

"We still don't know that for sure," Elizabeth countered. "Yeah, the evidence we have doesn't prove he did it. But it also doesn't prove he didn't."

I looked at my wife and I started to understand more about why things were handled as they were. Scarborough knew of Elizabeth's obsession with arresting Huntley. He wanted to curry favor with her, not only professionally but personally. The Task Force members knew where they had dropped Wells off when they shook him loose from protective custody. They knew exactly where to find him. They also knew the person who killed him hated him and they put the two together. It was the perfect storm.

"Pam killed Biff," I said evenly.

I saw Elizabeth's face turn white.

"Is that a guess?" she asked after she regained her composure.

"No," I answered. "It is a fact. Here's another fact. At least one and maybe more members of the Drug Task Force had a hand in it. I have Jane's investigator pulling traffic cam footage. I'm going to find out which Task Force member drove her to the motel that night and picked her up after she'd killed him. It's all going to come to light, Elizabeth."

I saw my wife gulp again and she nodded as she looked away.

"Did you set this up?" I asked. Her eyes shot back to me.

"Are you absolutely insane?" she asked.

"I think there is a good chance of that," I confessed. "Look, Elizabeth, I recognized Pam on the video last night. Yeah, it will never hold up in court. But I know how she walks. That's what first caught my eye."

"Her ass swinging like a rusty gate?" Elizabeth asked, her eyes narrowed.

"It wasn't that," I said. "It was that stiff-kneed gait she has, like she's one of those wind-up dolls with no joints."

Elizabeth actually shot me a smile.

"Yeah, I searched for a description," she said. "I thought she just walked that way so her tits would bounce."

"That might be the reason," I said. "I never asked. When I looked at the video more closely, I ... well, I thought the person was missing a hand. It took me three or four times through the video before I remembered that she was wearing a cast on her arm. The fiberglass was dark blue and it didn't show up at all against the pavement. The video is black and white. So I adjusted the monitor contrast until I could make it out."

"Damn," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "That's going to mess up Lauren Senior for life."

"She's already going to be messed up for life from just spending 15 years with that woman," I said.

"Probably," Elizabeth admitted. "So why do you think the Task Force had something to do with it?"

"She was picked up at the motel by a Ford Escape," I said.

"There are thousands of those in the area," Elizabeth pointed out.

"True," I agreed. "But think about it. She disappeared for two days."

"Two gloriously silent days," Elizabeth noted.

"Who had access to the information about where Biff Wells was headed?" I asked.

"Everyone on the Task Force could have accessed that information," Elizabeth countered. "And we have no idea who Wells called. His cell phone was missing and we don't even have a number to trace."

"Who took her to the hospital to have her hand X-rayed?" I asked.

The smile disappeared from Elizabeth's face.

"Paul Scarborough," she said almost in a whisper.

"Yep," I said. "He was one of the people waiting in the hallway that came rushing in when the commotion broke out. Judge Castille sent Pam off with him to get her wrist checked out."

"I can't believe he'd do that," Elizabeth said.

"Do that or do her?" I wondered.

Elizabeth glared at me.

"Either," she said angrily. "But you did her so what do I know about men?"

"Good point," I said. "There is one way to find out if it is just him or if there are more involved."

"What's that?" Elizabeth asked.

"Pull every member of the Task Force in and let Patel tell us who told him to lie," I suggested.

"Patel?" Elizabeth wondered.

"The desk clerk at the motel," I said. "Incidentally, you might think about getting that guy some protection. He's the only one who can say for certain and I have no doubt that they will kill him if they have to."

"I'll take care of it as soon as I figure out who to call," she said, looking away from me again.

"He and his family are on vacation," I told her. "I called his home last night when I found out the truth. His brother-in-law is house-sitting until the weekend."

"Well, there is that," Elizabeth said. "I'll call my Dad."

"OK, that's a start," I said. "Once Patel tells us who it was that coerced his testimony, we'll have the second step. Now we need to discuss the hard part."

"It gets harder than what we've already discussed?" Elizabeth asked. I could only nod.

"It is my opinion, considered over several sleepless nights, that you have to get out in front of this," I told her.

"How do I do that?" she asked.

"That depends on how truthful you've been with me about your involvement in the cover-ups," I replied.

"You make it sound like we just planted evidence whenever we wanted to bust someone!" Elizabeth yelled.

"That is the way everyone is going to view it," I said in an even voice. "The newspapers and TV stations are going to get this. Every single drug case from this county in the last 10 years is going to be reviewed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of convictions are going to be overturned."

"I still don't think it will be that bad," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "I think this will be viewed as an isolated incident."

"Then you are an idiot," I said. I saw Elizabeth's eyes narrow but I simply sat staring at her.

"There is money to be made from this," I continued. "There are reputations to be made. Do you recall how I came to national prominence a few years ago? It will be the same thing. Elizabeth, the men and women you convict are almost exclusively minorities from low-income families. Lawyers are going to be lined up around the block in the poor neighborhoods. There will be multi-million dollar lawsuits against the county – and, if you are convicted of official misconduct, against you, personally. This stands a large chance of bankrupting our family if you do not find some way to gain immunity."

Elizabeth's mouth dropped.

"You will need to go to Judge Valasik and lay the whole thing out," I said, ignoring her look. "Then you will have to agree to cooperate with the prosecutors and the special grand jury. In the worst case, you might have to plead guilty to a lesser charge and surrender your law license – perhaps permanently. I do not want you to go into this with your eyes closed. I would even suggest you use your feminine wiles to convince someone to take the fall on this – if I weren't your husband. As your husband, the only way I can see you coming out of this with anything resembling the life we used to have is confess all your sins to The Pickle."

Elizabeth's breath came out in a rush and she stared at me as if she didn't comprehend.

"Ben, I honestly don't know much about things," she said. "Maybe I am guilty of a lack of oversight but I am not part of any conspiracy to railroad people into prison. I didn't do that to Tiny Huntley and he is the man I hate most in the world. I can go to Valasik and give her my suspicions – or, rather, your suspicions – but I can't give her a vivid description of any criminal acts. I didn't see anything like that and I didn't even suspect it until I saw the file in the office at the house. I had only rudimentary knowledge of the case but I knew enough to know that you were missing documents."

"Let me just ask you this: What did you plan to accomplish by looking at my working papers?" I asked. Elizabeth looked down and shook her head slowly. I prompted her to answer. "Elizabeth?"

"I was considering ... considering, mind you ... seeing what you had planned for a defense and then making sure the investigators had the angles covered," she said.

"Wait a second," I cut in. "How many times did you break into my personal files?"

"A few," Elizabeth said.

"'A few' as in two or three times or 'a few' as in every damned time you got the chance?" I asked angrily.

"At least once a week," Elizabeth admitted. "The last time was just before Halloween. I saw the questions you wanted to ask the motel clerk. I started to print a copy and it hit me what I was doing. That was the last time."

"And did you relay any confidential information to anyone else?" I asked. Elizabeth looked away again. "Elizabeth?"

"Yes, damn it," she hissed. "I pulled Paul in and told him your trial strategy. I had him verify alibis of anyone you might use as a blind."

I closed my eyes tightly to keep from saying something I couldn't take back.

"Get out," I said softly. "Maybe your boy Paul can get you out of the shit on this one, too. Don't ask me for my help again."

"Ben!" Elizabeth said.

"I asked you to leave," I said in the same even tone. "If I have to call for security, I will."

She was almost to the door when I spoke again.

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Story tagged with:
Fiction / Mystery / Violent /