FLEET FILES by Jenna Brownson (1)

In recognition that may of us feel trapped in our homes as we try our best to be responsible practitioners of social distancing, I thought it might be entertaining for you to read, installment by intsallment, the second novel that I wrote years ago.

As a child, I remember reading “serials” in magazines. In particular, I’d look forward to discovering the latest adventures of Annie and her trusty pup. I’d spend those interminable interim periods wondering about them.

My intention is to post an installment daily by no later than 1:00 PM.

I’m open to your thoughts, criticisms, and feedback at jennabrownson@gmail.com.

 

Here’s a quick description of the story:

When Sergeant Natalie Martin discovers a box of files secreted under the chief of police’s desk, she is surprised to find it contains dirt suitable for blackmail on prominent citizens of the city of Fleet. Feeling an obligation to do the right thing, Natalie decides to play a modern day Robin Hood and bring the files to their named targets until the day comes when she finds a file with her name in it forcing her to race against time where the end result will either be the ousting of the corrupt chief or the airing of everyone’s secrets, including her own.

And now, I warmly welcome you to the City of Fleet and the cast of characters who call this small city home:

installment 1

 

Arnold Tucker had no business being the newest chief of police for the city of Fleet. He knew it, and anyone who was paying any attention knew it, too. Having just signed a three-year contract with an annual salary for far more than he would ever be worth, Arnold figured his best course of action would be to privately meet with the two sergeants on the Fleet force and endorse the clean-slate approach: forget the past and move on.

When Arnold asked both of the sergeants into his freshly-painted corner office with the oversized executive desk, he hoped they would read his email as an order and not ignore it, thinking it merely an invitation. Arnold was acutely aware of the fact that his coworkers did not take him seriously due to his ongoing gaffes and blunders. But now with Arnold as chief, he intended to change people’s opinions. He wanted the staff to know that things were going to be better—all around. Arnold’s short-term plan was to use the meetings with the department’s sergeants for to accomplish two goals: first, to encourage collective amnesia; second, as informal interviews for the lieutenant’s seat which he’d just left.

For the occasion, Arnold bought a single-serve coffee maker. It came with a starter pack of assorted flavors. Arnold also purchased a twelve- pack of “Caramel-Chocolate-Peanut Escape” after reading the printed testimonial on the side of the box: I added cream and sugar and it tasted just like my favorite candy bar.

Arnold had many favorite candy bars as evidenced by his aching joints—knees in particular—that were charged with carrying Arnold’s enormity. Despite his obesity—some would say the “morbid” sort—in Arnold’s thirty years of employment with the Fleet PD, no one had ever seen Arnold eating a doughnut while on shift. Not once. A hundred pounds and three decades earlier, Arnold vowed never to give anyone that image: neither civilians nor fellow officers. That convenient stereotype would not apply to him. And while honey-dipped crullers and Boston cream doughnuts routinely passed his lips—usually a dozen in a sitting in the privacy of his what he knew would forever be a “bachelor pad”—his peers had little to no memory of ever having seen Arnold eat anything at the station. Ever.

When in uniform and on the road, nary a crumb would be found in the crevices of Arnold’s seat when his cruiser got its weekly cleaning. If a craving struck while on shift, Arnold would use the excuse of needing to fill up the gas tank at the municipal pumps and hide behind the building with the large, flat box of assorted pastries that he’d just told the bakery clerk he was bring back to the station. Arnold was meticulous about his binging. So much so that instead of being chided for his obesity for eating so much, Arnold heard statements rooted in pure disbelief over how he managed not to lose weight when, by all observations, it seemed he never consumed food.

When the ebullient Natalie Martin strutted into Arnold’s office for her meeting with the new chief and took her seat across the desk from him, the two were as near to opposite as a pair could be. Petite fit, and a font of optimism, Natalie politely declined the oversold suggestion she try the candy-flavored coffee, much to Arnold’s dismay. Even after Arnold pulled the box out of the trash and recited the testimonial, Natalie opted for dark roast, no cream, no sugar. Arnold couldn’t help but think she was purposefully abstaining just to shame him into not having a cup himself—to which he most certainly would have added cream and sugar or the whole candy-mimicking effect would have been lost.

Sitting across the expanse of his desk with her hot and bitter coffee in a Fleet PD mug just to the left of his business card holder, which incidentally was set on the corner of the desk so that people would feel invited to take one of his newly-minted cards, Natalie was clearly waiting for him to speak. Arnold knew she was angry, but hoped that she would realize that directing it at him was unreasonable considering all of the obvious circumstances. His new role as chief was, in his narrow opinion, simply an eventuality borne of seniority. Though Arnold was sure that Natalie thought otherwise: her believing that merit and smarts ought to have been the prerequisites for the four-star promotion.

Arnold told himself that his tenure mattered. Natalie was hired about half way into Arnold’s time on the force. At the time, Arnold was the overnight sergeant and still under three hundred pounds. He was sure that the then-chief assigned him to the quiet shift to ensure as little facetime with the public. When Natalie and another token female were hired, the old-fashioned—that is, misogynistic former chief—stuck the two women with Arnold on overnights. With no real witnesses on their overnight shifts, Arnold earnestly tried to get the new hires to like him—to trust him. While some of his methods to achieve those goals were sensible, most were not.

The blurring of rank was common on smaller police forces. So, when Arnold insisted that both women call him by his first name, they did. Feeling emboldened, he once suggested that they each create a special nickname for him; they did not. Frequently when the three graveyarders found themselves in the station at the same time, Arnold would call a nonsensical three-person “staff meeting.” Initially, their collegiate meetings were limited to police business, which the women seemed to benefit from. But in short order, the conversation ended up with Arnold switching over to inquiries into the women’s personal lives. Arnold’s bizarre behavior was alternatively attributable to not feeling comfortable in charge and not feeling comfortable around women. He would see them rolling their eyes at him, and he suspected that they crafted both serious and humorous theories as to how he got to be so strange.

Arnold discovered, years later, that the then-chief and his lieutenant wagered on which would drive the two women away first: the tough hours or having to spend shift after shift with Sergeant Arnold. One woman left after a year; Natalie endured and was promoted to sergeant five years later. Some whispered that Natalie’s promotion was done to stave off accusations of sexism. Anyone who had ever observed Natalie’s strident work ethic knew she was qualified: she was a good cop and deserving of the three-chevroned uniform.

Looking thoughtfully at Natalie, Arnold tried to recall what he had settled on as his opening salvo. He felt his stomach churn a bit and send up the residue from his greasy breakfast. Arnold needed to be careful with his words. Of the two sergeants, Natalie was the one who upon hearing of Chief Daniel Clayton’s resignation made her intentions known: she was going to apply to be the next chief of police in the Town of Fleet. However, Natalie never had the chance to even interview; the job was never posted. Small town politics—not merit—governed this most recent myopic hire. The city council simply promoted the longest-serving, highest-ranked person on the force rather than forming a hiring committee and funding the cost of a full-fledged search. Arnold’s ascent was neither precipitous nor earned; he’d simply stuck around long enough.

He knew it, and she knew it.

Natalie was well liked by not only everyone on the force but also—it seemed to Arnold—by everyone everywhere. He did himself no good to have her as an enemy. He needed her on his side. He figured if Natalie could be convinced to appear enthused about Arnold’s leadership of the force, then the rank would fall into lock step with her.

He smiled cautiously and began, “So, Sergeant Martin, here we are.”

As soon as he heard himself saying the words, he knew he should have led with both something stronger and not so stilted. His earlier vision of how to start a conversation that he didn’t even want to have had faded into blurry images with no soundtrack. In fact, by using her rank and last name—a departure from the usual “Natalie”—he realized that he had misspoke. His tongue felt heavy and swollen in his mouth, leading him to recall the time he’d furtively consumed an entire pineapple which led to a trip to the pediatrician who diagnosed him with a sensitivity to the tropical fruit and renewed his advice to his mother to “cut down on giving the boy sweets.”

Natalie intruded upon his memory: “Yes, Arnold, here we are.”

For as long as he could remember, Natalie had only called him by his first name. Arnold didn’t expect this was going to change regardless of how he had just addressed her or the four stars perched, in their own embarrassment, on his epaulettes.

He tried again. “You know I’ve always liked you. You’re a good cop.”

“You think?”

She didn’t look impressed by his praise.

Arnold nodded and said, “I do. Others do, too. There’s a chance for you to grow here; to, let’s say, progress.”

There were only two ranks above where she sat now: lieutenant and chief. Arnold imagined she wasn’t interested in sitting second chair to him and he was, quite conspicuously, filling up the chief’s seat.

“How do you mean?” she asked in what sounded to him like pure apathy despite the words.

“Up until this point, there’s been a certain structure to the department. Now that I’m in charge,” he paused slightly to let the fact settle, “I was thinking about making some changes.”

Natalie sat forward slightly. Arnold saw it.

Bolstered by what appeared to be a slightly less blasé audience, Arnold began to explain, growing more animated with each sentence. “There are a bunch of unsolved investigations in Fleet. The detectives check the ‘no further leads’ box too quickly. You, Natalie,” he said with cautious familiarity, “have a solid reputation as an investigator. And what’s your guilty record? Eighty percent? You seem to know what to ask and what leads are worth following. And we all know that you’ve been here for fifteen years.”

Natalie was nodding along as Arnold spoke. He was readying to unveil his big idea when she spoke.

“For the record, it’s 87%.”

“Alright,” he conceded, distracted by her interruption and waiting nothing more than to tell her what he had concocted.

Arnold took a breath to make his announcement, only to be cut off again.

“And it’s been fourteen years.”

“What?”

“Fourteen years, Arnold. Not fifteen.”

“Fine, fine,” Arnold said, wishing that he had either taken the time to get these facts straight or not made mention of her court performance record and tenure on the force.

At this point the build-up had evaporated; the drama had diminished to near nothing.

Nevertheless, he trumpeted, “Effective immediately, I’m establishing a new role here. How does ‘Senior Sergeant Detective First Class’ sound?”

Natalie sat back in her chair, pressed her lips together, and nodded. She took a sip of coffee and said, “Honestly, the title sounds a bit overdone. I’m not sure what it conveys. But that aside, what would the ‘Senior Sergeant Detective First Class’ be doing? You know, day-to-day?”

Arnold hadn’t gotten that far in the evolution of his idea. He thought the title alone would wow her to the point where her gratitude would overshadow the details. In an effort not to look wholly unprepared, he began to wing it while at the same time making it clear that he was suggesting the job for her.

“Ah, well, you’d be in charge of the detectives, of course, making sure they got their work done, did a good job—uh, you know—explore every leads. You could even suggest leads they hadn’t considered.”

Arnold saw Natalie’s eyebrows arch and heard a thin stream of air coming from her slightly flared nostrils. He felt inept and embarrassed; he longed for the comfort he found at the bottom of a cylinder of stacked, saddle-shaped potato chips. Natalie tipped her head to the left and, despite the fact he was taller in his chair than she was in hers, she seemed to be looking down her nose at him. He added, “And of course, you’d be getting a substantial raise.”

Her judgmental sneer shifted into a confident smirk.

She asked, “Really? How ‘substantial’?”

Arnold hadn’t figured on a number for this. In fact, Arnold hadn’t planned to offer her any additional compensation. He only suggested the salary incentive to gloss over his vague job description.

Rapidly calculating, hurdling toward an irreversible error, Arnold spat out, “Twelve grand.”

Twelve months translated far too quickly into twelve grand. Arnold hadn’t a clue where that money was going to come from. There was no wiggle room, no twelve grand of slush in the budget. Moreover, Arnold knew he would garner no sympathy from the city’ financial managers for this offered-up salary increase in the long-since-settled, city-wide budget.

“Arnold, let me make sure I understand your proposal. You are restructuring the department, effective immediately, to include a new role, currently titled ‘Senior Sergeant Detective First Class’ to supervise and oversee the detectives’ work and reopen past unsolved crimes. It comes with a twelve-thousand-dollar raise. And, you’re offer the job to me.”

It appeared to Arnold she did understand his cobbled together proposal.

He assented, “Yes. That’s what I’m saying.”

Arnold needed this to slow down. Instinctively, he placed his thick index finger over his pursed his lips. He thought it made him look pensive, deliberate; though it also could have doubled as the look one has on the verge of vomiting. Arnold needed an out. He was now worried both by the thought of where the money for the raise was going to come from and that Natalie might accept the offer right then and there.

Desperately, he added, “And you’ll report directly to me. Not to the lieutenant.” He had said this in the hopes of scaring her away. It did the opposite.

“Terrific. I accept. Start date?”

“Don’t you have to think it over?” he asked, his tone edging on a plaintive whine.

“Nope. I like it. The job title needs to be shortened. But apart from that, I’m in,” she said.

“Shouldn’t you speak to your husband about it?” Arnold, being a bachelor himself, figured all married couples made these sorts of decisions together.

“No. Charlie and I have an understanding.”

Arnold had no other disincentives to offer. He was out of ideas for obstacles to put in her path.

“All right. I’ll have personnel draw up the papers. We’ll go from there,” Arnold said.

Natalie smiled and, with an effectuated flair, said, “Mark my words, Arnold, you won’t be disappointed. I’m going to turn around the department’s recent reputation of shoddy investigations and improve our image as its new detective sergeant. How’s that sound? I think dropping ‘senior’ and ‘first class’ makes sense. Don’t you?”

Had Arnold been offered the lengthy, fancy title, he would have jumped on it, but instead said, “If that’s your preference, ‘detective sergeant’ it is.”

When Natalie stood to go and make her way out, Arnold realized she hadn’t been dismissed. Arnold needed something to remind her that he was in charge especially after she had declined his offer to share his fancy flavored coffee with her.

He said, “While we’re talking about titles, I’d appreciate your making the effort to address me by mine,” he said.

Natalie turned around to face Arnold. She placed both hands on the back of the chair she had just vacated. She smiled in a manner that looked, to Arnold, cloying.

She said, “You know, I’ve only ever thought of you as ‘Arnold.’ When I first joined the force and you were my overnight sergeant, you asked me and Tina to call you ‘Arnold.’ You said you wanted us to feel like we could come to you and that the different rank titles might make us feel like we couldn’t. Remember?”

Arnold’s face softened. He felt his jaw unclench and the skin around his eyes relax.

She continued, “So, starting back fourteen years ago, you were ‘Arnold.’ I’ve grown accustomed to that form of address. Now that I’ll be reporting directly to you, I think it’ll be—I don’t know, weird—to call you anything but ‘Arnold.’ How’s this? You keep calling me ‘Natalie,’ as you always have, and I’ll keep calling you ‘Arnold’?”

Arnold nodded slightly. And with that, Natalie spun around and left.

After she departed, he realized she had gotten through her entire explanation without ever saying “chief.” He wondered whether her departing smile was suppressed smugness, or even controlled laughter. In that moment, things did feel different but not any better.

#

Charlie was changing out of his suit when he heard the screen door slam shut.

His wife called out, “I got a raise today.”

In their small, tidy kitchen, Charlie found Natalie unsheathing a bottle of champagne from a damp brown bag. She pulled two stout glasses from the cabinet and slid in front of the sink. Natalie cupped the base of the bottle and began twisting on the cork. On the night of their engagement, she had opened their celebratory champagne in this same way. Charlie had told her to hold the cork and turn the bottle: this, purportedly the best way to open champagne. Since Natalie rarely drank, Charlie bypassed a reeducation that had the potential of derailing her present good mood. It had been a while since she appeared happy, for that matter, it has been a long time since she even came off as relaxed. Charlie had been initially attracted to her buoyant personality, to her aura of optimism. Yet for the last many weeks, the anger she stoked over the happenings at the station had led Charlie into a mini-depression of his own. Maybe his wife’s kitchen celebration marked a turning point, a pivot back to loving her work.

With a guarded sense of positivity, he asked, “You’ve been promoted to lieutenant?”

“No. Arnold, in his infinite wisdom, created a new position: ‘senior detective sergeant first class.’ Overblown, wouldn’t you say?”

When the cork released, Charlie noticed a genuine smile. It had been months since he’d seen his wife convincingly happy.

A third of the foamy liquid cascaded over her hand, lost to the sink. Natalie filled their glasses, tucked the bottle under her arm, and swept into the living room where the late afternoon sun filled the space with golden light. Charlie followed. She handed him his champagne and perched on the edge of the couch.

“Cheers to me,” she said smugly, lifting her glass.

“Tell me more, Nat.”

Charlie smiled and attempted to look happily interested. Admittedly, he was masking his disappointment in hearing the news now rather than right after it happened. Earlier in their almost decade-long marriage, Natalie would call Charlie in the middle of their workdays—sometimes several times a day—to share mundane anecdotes and workplace gossip. Back then, Charlie humbly saw her calls as poor-veiled excuses to hear his voice, which she admitted early on she found arousing.

Many years ago, when Charlie first took notice of Natalie, she was dressed in a well-cut blue pantsuit and testifying in a larceny case at Stanfield District Court. Charlie had just completed the arraignments from the weekend and was waiting for the afternoon motion session. He was struck by her neatly coiffed short dark hair and the way in which the contours of her high cheekbones caught the light from the overhead pendant lights. He ought to have gone down to the satellite prosecutor’s office in the basement of the courthouse right after his work was done, but instead he watched Natalie gracefully step into the witness box and raise her right hand. Glancing at her naked left hand, he guessed her unmarried. It would be four years before he gathered the confidence to ask her out; this despite his internal prediction, in those first few moments, that she would be the woman he would marry.

The two of them found in each other comfort and familiarity which was further evidenced in the way their bodies fit together. Lying side by side after sex, Natalie’s head would rest on Charlie’s chest listening to the beating of his heart return to a normal rhythm as they fell asleep: a short nap if they found themselves together in the afternoon or the balance of the night if after a long day.

While Charlie felt strong in her presence with a subsequent inclination to protect Natalie, they both knew protection was not something she was in need of. Natalie told Charlie that, with him, she reaped a camaraderie unparalleled by past lovers. She explained that she felt they were separate but equal: dedicated to respecting one another’s individuality and remarkable uniqueness without needing to compete. It was clear that their pairing was as good as they would likely ever find. The reasonableness of their choice went unquestioned by family and friends. Only positive feedback came in response to the announcement of their engagement. Within six months, they were married in the courtroom where Charlie first saw Natalie; the reception was held at Giovanni’s where they’d had their first date.

Recently though, those days felt ancient and foreign to Charlie. Somehow, in the last few years, the midday calls tapered off and their pair would only talk after their days were over. Charlie heard more and more at home about her work, which meant that they spoke less and less about “them” inside their small house. In that moment, on the couch with champagne, Charlie was deflated; Natalie’s raise and promotion didn’t even garner a text and now was the marker for the start of their weekend.

“I thought the meeting was going to be him saying how he expected things to go now that he’s in charge,” she continued. “And I guess, in part, that’s what it was, but it was also an olive branch. I’m sure he knows how angry I am at him.”

Before she could go on, Charlie said, “For the record, he’s not really to blame for being promoted to chief. It was the city council that made that decision.”

“They’re all to blame, Charlie. Apparently, no one on the city council was interested in having a qualified person take Daniel’s place, and Arnold should have known better than to take it. He’s a moron. He’s going to drive the department into the ground with some colossal mistake, or it’ll be a long, slow painful death by a thousand little mistakes. Either way someone ought to have been paying better attention. Luckily for the people of Fleet, they’ve got good ol’ Natalie Martin who has the chops to save the day.”

Natalie swirled the last few ounces of champagne around in her glass causing the bubbles to break and took a short sip.

“Alright, Superwoman. I’ll bite: how are you going to prevent doomsday in our sleepy little city?”

“The way I see it, the very best person to keep a close eye on the four-star fool is moi.”

Charlie found Natalie’s use of French endearing as she only employed it when she was feeling cocky. Hearing the foreign tongue, Charlie knew there must be more to the deal.

“And then what?”

“Then I catch him in one of his inevitable blunders and take him down. Can you even imagine how awesome that’ll be?”

“I can imagine all sorts of things, Nat,” he said, placing his empty glass on the coffee table.

“What’s that about?” Natalie asked, following suit with her glass.

“What?”

“‘All sorts of things.’ That?” she asked.

“Nothing. Go on,” he said. “You said you got a raise. How much?

Despite her look of skepticism—which Charlie hated to theorize about, as he always seemed to draw the wrong conclusions—Natalie lifted the bottle and refilled their glasses. She handed Charlie his and raised hers to eye level. She narrowed her blue-gray eyes as she looked through the liquid.

“Twelve grand,” she said. “But you remember when I was preparing for my interview that never happened? I studied the police department’s budget, and I can tell you that there isn’t any twelve grand sitting around for salary increases for anyone.”

Natalie brought the edge of the glass to her lips and drank.

Charlie asked, “So how was he able to offer you one?”

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Honestly, the whole meeting with him was a bit of a train wreck. I got the overwhelming feeling that Arnold hadn’t really thought the whole thing out so well. He looked to be shooting from the hip.”

“Well, was he? Is your new position even necessary? How many cases are unsolved?”

Natalie laughed and led off asking, “How far back do you want to go? Most of the time, the detectives work their cases just enough, and then,” Natalie raised her index and middle fingers to air quote, “‘due to a lack of substantial leads,’ they close out the investigation and move on to the next one. Fleet has a lot of unsolved cases. A lot.”

She tipped the remainder of the champagne back and filled her glass half way.

“Are you going to have your own case load?” Charlie asked.

“You know, that didn’t come up. I think I should though. And there isn’t any reasonable objection that Arnold could make to that.”

Charlie pressed his lips together. He forced a smile. He nodded in the way people do when they’re not quite sure what to say to the mourning family in a funeral line.

“Seriously, Charlie. What’s with you?” she asked.

“I’m feeling a little left out, Nat. I wish you’d discussed it with me.”

Natalie laughed a short burst of air through her nose. “I don’t recall being part of the conversation when you took your new assignment five years ago. That choice was made without my input.”

“So, this is payback? You know as well as I do that I couldn’t have productively stayed in the capital crimes unit trying cases. When the DA offered me a supervisory position, I was happy to take it. Cyber Crimes, if you recall, was the only choice the DA offered to me.”

“Yeah, I know, and now you’re stuck with it,” she said, shifting her weight to lean back against the upright part of the couch. “Charlie, you took a step back when you left capital crimes. You may never get back to trying serious cases and doing what you said you’d always wanted. You didn’t even give it a real chance,” she said.

“Come on, Nat. That’s not fair. For starters, I wasn’t ready for trying dead-baby cases which, as you well know, is why I left the capital crimes unit. Second, this discussion began with your announcement on how you plowed ahead with your decision to take a promotion. And now you want me to jump in and join your celebration, you want me to—”

Natalie cut him off and asked, “What’s not to celebrate? I’m getting paid more, I have more responsibility, and I’m that much closer to Arnold. I can keep an eye on him, better prepare myself for his departure. In fact, I’m going to start carrying a notebook to keep track of his misdeeds and missteps.” When Charlie started shaking his head, Natalie held up her hand to his physical dissent and said, “I’m not looking for permission from you. I’m telling you that keeping a written record is the best way for me to build a case against him. Had I known that Daniel was going to resign, I would have kept notes during Arnold’s tenure as lieutenant. Too bad for me that Daniel up and left with basically no notice. I had no time to prepare. That’s not going to be a situation I find myself in going forward. You know as well as I do that I should be sitting at that desk—not the enormously inept Arnold. And although I predict he’s bound to make a huge mess and then end up stepping in it—maybe get canned all on his own—I intend to be right there to point out his incompetence if it turns out that no one is paying attention again. I’m going to become Fleet’s next chief, and I intend to do that as soon as possible. Keeping a notebook on him is an essential piece of that equation.”

Charlie took a deep breath. There was little he could say to tamp down his wife’s ambitions. While he’d expected nothing less from her, he was a little taken aback by her plan to be so disciplined in her efforts to get rid of Arnold.

“When do you start” he began to ask and quickly specified, “as detective sergeant, not as a notebook-toting internal affairs investigator?”

Natalie smiled, raised her eyebrows, and said, “Arnold said, ‘effective immediately,’ but I’m not in any rush really to take on the new title. When the paperwork is ready, I’m sure he’ll call me in to sign. As for the second half of your unasked question, I already have. The first notation in my brand-new notebook, which I have loving titled ‘Operation Ousting,’ is about how the bungling chief offered an inferior officer a raise which he has no way to fund within the budget. The way I see it, he’s already set himself up for a complaint to HR and maybe a breach of an offer of employment.”

Charlie pressed his lips together, nodded, and stood.

“I’m going to start dinner,” he said.

“It’s too hot to cook. Let’s go out?”

“Nah. I’m not up for it,” Charlie said, disappearing into the kitchen. “I’ve got to prep for tomorrow’s lobby conference with Judge Ashby.”

“What’s the case about?” Natalie asked, coming into the kitchen and hopping up onto the countertop.

“This guy named Nealy managed to get into the internal servers at a few small local businesses and gutted their poorly protected retirement accounts. I’m confident he didn’t work alone. So, I’d like to convince the Nealy’s attorney to give us the names of his client’s hacker pals in exchange for some time off Nealy’s sentence. I think tomorrow could be a chance to see what’s under the tip of the iceberg.” Charlie paused, having sensed that Natalie’s thoughts were elsewhere. He changed topics saying, “I’m going to make a salad. That’ll be enough for me for dinner.”

“Yeah, all right. I’ll help,” she said.

They put on the radio and listened to the news of the world as they chopped vegetables. Eating with the radio’s disembodied voice providing the framework for their superficial dinner conversation, Charlie wondered about when the two of them might get back to the level of intimacy and vulnerability they had so well established in the early years of their marriage.

Around 8:00, Charlie took to the guest bedroom to begin outlining the state’s not-so-strong case against Nealy. Natalie angled a mystery novel from the hallway bookshelf and retired to their bed. Although he felt the pressure to get his work done for the next day, Charlie’s mind drifted back to Natalie, and he found himself rereading the same page of notes on his legal pad. Deep down, Charlie just wanted to go to bed and lie next to her.

After an hour of distraction, Charlie decided he needed to make amends for his lukewarm reaction to Natalie’s news. When he summonsed the energy to go speak with her, she was asleep, her back facing both him and his side of the bed. Instead of climbing in and feeling the regrettable gulf between them, he returned to the guest room to plod on. He thought, maybe in a few hours when I’m done working, she’ll be facing my side. At midnight, Charlie shuffled down the hall and into their bedroom. Her face fully visible in ambient light, Charlie interpreted her posture as her subconscious apology for not including him in her decision to take the promotion. His choice of perception was, at the very least comforting enough to him to aid him into sleep.

#

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