by S. M. Harding
Welcome to McCrumb County, Indiana, where retired Marine Corps Colonel Win Kirkland and Sheriff Sarah Pitt had hoped that their deepening relationship might bring some peace and order to their complicated lives.
Freed from the closeted life after 25 years in the military, Win is fiercely out and proud—and ready for Sarah to move in. But the newly out Sarah has serious doubts about living as an open lesbian among her county’s conservative population. She longs to overcome her fear of exposure, especially since several gorgeous and exotic women seem intent on seducing Win—and she knows she could lose Win to them or to a bullet.
Win and Sarah’s personal struggles are soon overshadowed by a series of local and international crimes that will blur the lines between hostility and horror, friend and foe, sacrifice and survival.
A Woman of Strong Purpose is the heart-pounding follow-up to S. M. Harding’s popular romantic mystery I Will Meet You There.
GCLS Goldie Awards
A Woman of Strong Purpose —Finalist, Romantic Suspense/Intrigue/Adventure.
Lesbian Reading Room
The main characters are great, well rounded, complex and on deep personal journeys. The supporting cast is solid, growing in depth and breadth as we get to know them from both actions and words. The story is well done, the arc and the balance between the three main story lines works well, as does the alternating point of view and voice from Win to Sarah, and thankfully the author avoids the pitfall of repeating a scene or explanation from both points of view. It's a great fun, breathtaking rollercoaster adventure with a serious undercurrent of the impact these adventures have on those involved, both physically and emotionally. Looking forward to reading book three.
I glanced at my watch to see how much time I had before the Friday faculty gathering called the Sherry Hour. Although I’d never seen any sherry at the bar, every other kind of booze was plentiful. This was the last one of the academic year and Dr. Kemat Fitzgerald had urged me to come.
“It’s good politics, Win,” she’d said. I’d taken that as a warning.
The longer I knew her, the more of a mystery Kemat was to me. The director of Central Eurasian Language Institute, she was generous with stories about growing up in Cairo and her arrival in the US in the late 1980s. She never spoke about the time between.
Maybe it was just my background in Military Intelligence, but I always listened for what wasn’t said. CELI had begun its life as the Army Specialized Training Program for Central Eurasian Languages sometime during WWII. The military still sent their people for training here. She must’ve been vetted thoroughly. Maybe I was listening too hard. These days, I found it hard to judge.
I packed the unfinished student papers into my briefcase, took a detour and dropped it in my truck. Then I took a deep breath and headed into Sherry Hour. I grabbed a beer from an iced tub and examined the room. Despite the efforts Kemat had made to warm up the place with beautiful rugs and wall hangings, it was a room from the 1960s. Long, narrow windows. No blinds. Minimal white. I wondered where the Boston ferns in hanging macramé had gone.
I knew few of the other faculty because I was part-time, or in academic dialect, adjunct faculty. I only taught Wednesday through Friday and took off when duty was done. Though I’d met a few of the people standing around in groups, they’d remained distant acquaintances. I didn’t have time to chitchat because I was trying to learn how to teach the subtleties of a subtle language.
My gaze wandered to a stunning woman dressed in modified Afghani garb of an earthy gray color, her hijab a complicated pattern in gray, brown and red. I watched her talking to two men, both bearded but in casual Western dress. Whatever she was saying, the frown that ruffled her brow told me she was upset. She turned away from them, caught my gaze and steamed toward me.
“Chauvinist pigs!” she said in heavily accented English. “Do you still call them that?”
“Haven’t heard it in a while,” I said, trying to place her accent. “I’m Win Kirkland.”
She smiled. “I know. I have seen you on this campus.”
Not much of a window of opportunity to see me. Stalker or spy? I tried to remind myself I was no longer active military. A lifetime of suspicion was hard to overcome. “And you are?” She’d remained looking at my eyes through long lashes. Now she raised her head, opened her eyes wide. “Oh, I am so sorry, how rude of me. I am Noor Bhatti. I am visitor scholar.”
Was she flirting? Shit. I should know. But nationality now made sense. The last name was Pakistani. Her clothes, not Afghan but Punjabi. “Are you Pakistani?”
“Kashmiri, from Gilgit in the north.”
I nodded. South of where I’d been my last couple of tours, but loaded with Taliban who moved across borders easily. My border. I knew it was irrational, but I felt my hackles quiver.
“You teach Tajik?”
“How did you learn?”
“I spent some time in the Hindu Kush, learned from the people.” I was beginning to get uncomfortable.
“It is beautiful country, more dramatic than my own. But there are…things alike. Yes?”
“I’ve never been to Kashmir.” A lie. Plus, I’d studied the satellite images, looking for Pakistani Taliban. I glanced around the room. Kemat watched us with an intense gaze. I wondered why.
“I would love to tell you about my country,” she said, subtly leaning toward me. “Would you like to go for a drink?”
Oh, yeah. Definitely flirting. I held up my bottle. “I have one. You drink?”
“Only when I am in this country. It seems the, ah, social thing to do.”
“How long will you be here?”
“I will remain all of summer.” She took a step forward and smiled up at me.
“Well, maybe we can go for coffee sometime.” Was that vague enough?
“Do you live in Bloomington?”
“No. Out in the country.” I almost laughed. Two years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to take her up on the offer, but now I was a married woman. “It’s a long drive. I should get going.”
I put the bottle down, smiled at her, found my jacket and began the trek to the door. So much for being political.
Before I got there, Kemat intercepted me. “Leaving so soon?”
What could I say? Noor was hitting on me? Cause Noor problems when I could handle her advances by myself? “It’s a long drive home and my dog’s waiting for me.” In the studio apartment I rented in Bloomington because it cut down on the travel.
She looked disappointed.
“I’m really tired, Kemat. I promise I’ll be better next year.”
“The first year is always the most difficult.” She patted my arm. “I’ll be in Greenglen next week. I would like to talk with you then. Could we arrange a time to meet?”
“Sure.” I wondered what I’d done wrong. Would I have a next year teaching?
“I’m giving a series of classes to the high school teachers in the mornings, every Wednesday. Could we meet for lunch?”
“I’ll pick you up at the high school at noon. If that’s all right?” I asked.
“That would be lovely.”
“Are you going to fire me?” So much for subtlety. Good going, Win.
“Oh no, Win. This is a private matter. I need to ask you for a favor. Now go, I’m sure you want to get home to your wife. Sarah is a lovely woman.”
I grinned. “I think so too.”
Her eyebrows edged up. “I should hope so.”
* * *
As I drove home, I turned the worn gold band on my left hand. Even though it had been four months, I found it difficult to believe I was married. As word spread among my old marine buddies, so did they. In the most graphic terms.
Sarah, when she’d asked me to marry her, promised we’d make it official. An early January vacation in Vermont at a small inn that catered to gays. Micah, Sarah’s Dad, and Nathan, our friend since childhood, had come up to give us their blessing on the union. They’d only stayed overnight, but in the time they’d been there, garnered quite a few “Aw, that’s sweet” looks. I didn’t think they quite understood. Micah was in his early seventies, Nathan our age.
The Green Mountains had been white, the fire in the fieldstone fireplace welcoming. We’d cross-country skied every day, eaten our way through every restaurant in the area. Loved every part of one another’s bodies. Most of all, we spent time together. Unabashedly together. She kissed me at a candlelit table in a restaurant. I’d returned the favor as we tapped snow off our boots at the ski rental place.
That’s what hurt. Now that we were back in McCrumb County, we were back living in the shadows. Sarah had started her second term as sheriff. Most weeks during the winter, our time together was on Tuesdays, her day off and one of my nonteaching days. When the weather improved with spring, she’d driven into Bloomington more often. We’d shared movies and music and dinner out. Dancing together at Ruby Slippers.
Doable for the time being, but I knew Sarah chafed at the secrecy. I missed the openness of the inn and environs. Ruby Slippers in Bloomington was a part-time substitute where we were surrounded by other gays. We both wanted something full-time. I’d put the decision in her hands. When the time came, we’d step forward. Hand in hand.
I picked up Des and a suitcase and hightailed it to the country. I pulled into my driveway, saw Sarah’s SUV parked to one side of the clearing that harbored my home. Des leaped through the open window of the truck and barked at the front door before I’d stopped. When I walked through the front door, I put my briefcase down. Sniffed. The aroma of something tomato with spices. Des swarmed Sarah, got a kiss on her snout and went to lap her water.
Sarah stood at the stove, a silly grin on her face as she turned. “Well?”
“Honey, I’m home. What’s for dinner?”
This had become a running joke between us because it depended on who walked through the door from work. We had no role we couldn’t trade, June and Ward Cleaver be damned. A gentle tribute to our union.
“How was work?” she asked on cue.
I took off my jacket, hung it on a peg. Let my gaze travel down her body. She took my breath away as much now as our first kiss. Not a classically beautiful face, but strong with a jawline I could stroke forever. More silver in her hair than when we’d first met. Her height matched my own, her body as athletic as mine. But her breasts. Ah. I slipped my hands under her Angel Mounds sweatshirt and pulled her to me. We kissed until we ran out of breath.
“Angel Mounds, indeed,” I said, moving my hands to her full breasts.
“An archaeological site, Win,” she said, leaning into my hands. “Not my breasts.”
“Leave me to my own interpretation.” I kissed her again.
Finally, she pulled back. “Can you tell what I’m cooking?”
“Put that thought on the back burner for now,” she said with a raised eyebrow. “Remember when we were kids and you’d come over for lunch? Mom made tomato soup?”
“She’d make us grilled cheese sandwiches to go with it,” I said, sniffing again. “Perfect for the weather.”
“Go change your clothes and dinner will be on the table.” She kissed me, a June peck on the lips.
Over dinner, I told her about Kemat at the Sherry Hour. “I can’t imagine what personal favor I can do for her.”
“Something from your Intelligence background?”
I picked up the gooey sandwich. Not her mother’s. I still couldn’t identify the cheese she’d grilled between two slabs of locally made focaccia. “She shouldn’t have any knowledge of my background. Bill scrubbed all that stuff from what he sent her.”
“Hm. Maybe you’ve given yourself away in conversation. On second thought, I doubt if that’s possible.”
I took a bite, reveled in the blend of tastes. Watched Sarah as she spooned her soup the proper way. The low light struck one side of her face. I wondered at the blue of her eyes. How the blue changed from the early morning sky then, when she was upset, to the darker purple gromwell I’d seen in Afghanistan. Right now, they matched the sky at midday. “I was hit on by a gorgeous Pakistani woman.”
“She flirted outrageously, wanted me to go for a drink.”
“She’s Muslim? Then she shouldn’t be drinking alcohol.” Sarah dipped her spoon into the soup.
“Maybe that’s not what she wanted to drink.”
I heard the warning in her voice. “Come on, Sarah. It felt good to have a stranger look at me like I’m attractive. Besides, I made it clear I wasn’t interested.”
While I was finishing up the dishes, Sarah came up behind, slipped her hand down the front of my sweatpants. “You want to pretend we’re strangers?”
My knees went wobbly. I swallowed. “I think we’re far too engaged right now for that scenario.”
* * *
I no longer had an uncontrollable urge to mess up the Zen sandbox in my therapist’s waiting room. Perhaps unreasonably, I was proud of that. The door opened and Dr. Emily Peterson beckoned me in. I sat in the same comfortable chair I’d been sitting in for the past two years as I tried to get a handle on my PTSD. The serious symptoms hadn’t visited me in months. Being hypervigilant would probably never leave me, especially married to the sheriff of McCrumb County.
Emily was doing her New Age checking-my-aura stuff through half-closed eyes. “Good couple of weeks?”
“Yep. A gorgeous woman hit on me, and I wasn’t interested. Semester’s over, my grading’s done. I’m a woman of leisure until the intensive begins.”
“You like teaching.”
Interesting. She skipped the gorgeous woman. “Yeah. It terrified me at first. But once I got into the rhythm, understood the students better, I enjoyed it. I like sharing a culture I love.”
“You think of Azar often while you’re teaching?”
“I feel like she’s by my side, helping.”
“Any conflict with that, now that you’re married to another woman?”
I shook my head. “I have a really strong sense that Azar isn’t just blessing my teaching, but my union with Sarah.”
“Sarah? Does she feel the presence of a ghost?”
“No. Sarah realizes if I hadn’t had Azar in my life, I wouldn’t value what we have.” I closed my eyes a moment. Gather your thoughts, Win. “Without loving Azar, I would’ve seduced Sarah without thought, without meaning. It would’ve been another fling for me.”
Emily nodded. “How’s the secrecy going?”
“It’s a pain. Sarah’s getting restless, but I’m okay hiding until she gives the all clear.”
Em nodded and jotted a few notes. She closed the file and laid it on the table beside her. “You’ve made wonderful progress. You’re healing well. Just remember, the PTSD may lay dormant for years. I don’t think anyone recovers completely. If you notice symptoms returning, call.”
“Are you giving me the brush-off?”
“Never, Win. But I think it’s time to test your wings. No more regular appointments. How does that sound?”
“Like I’m being pushed out of the nest, to use your metaphor.”
“How does it feel?”
I closed my eyes. Probed my own psyche for an ouch. “Okay. Not great, but generally all right. Makes me sad that I won’t see you anymore. But mainly, I feel blessed. I know Sarah and I will hit rougher winds. But for now, I couldn’t be happier.” I hesitated. “What do I do if things fall apart?”
“No. I don’t think they will. We try to talk so things won’t build up. It’s not our marriage I’m worried about. It’s life. I seem to have the ability to attract, uh, situations.”
“Both you and Sarah do. Is your antenna telling you something’s up?”
“Maybe. Don’t know yet.”
“If you find that to be the case and you’re feeling stressed, call. This doesn’t mean an end to our therapeutic relationship. You need to talk, don’t hesitate to call. If you and Sarah run into a rough patch, come in for couples’ counseling. But I don’t think we need regular appointments.” She smiled. “Use the money you save to take Sarah out for a nice dinner.”
I stared at the bottom of a narrow ravine that had been cleaved by water over eons. Pristine beauty that now was blackened and scarred with the charred remains of a skeletal RV and the chemicals that it had contained.
“Doesn’t this creek empty into No Name a mile or so south of here?”
“’Bout a mile and a half,” Fire Chief Hubler said, with a spit of tobacco over the bridge. “We got three booms, two hundred feet apart, across the crik. Doubt if anything can get through all three, Sarah.”
“I certainly hope to hell not. We’re not sure what chemicals they had.”
“Yeah. We started calling it the Grey Ghost about six months ago because as soon as we got a sighting, they’d move. I would’ve liked to catch up with them before this.”
Mike Bryer, the head of the Fatal Accident Crash Team, walked up. “Real mess. Don’t know how we’re gonna get it out.”
“You have any idea what caused the crash?” I asked.
“Only a guess now—still have to take statements, like from you, Chief, and whoever answered the call with you.”
“We only have one truck with the same volunteers we’ve had for the past ten years. You know where they are.”
I examined Gary Hubler’s face. Everything sagged with exhaustion. Even his bushy eyebrows.
“Can you wait until tomorrow morning, Mike?” I asked. “I can sketch in what Gary’s told me for you.”
“Sure Sarah. No problem.” He opened his notebook, looked at the basic diagrams he’d drawn. “At a guess, these guys were traveling too fast for this road in good weather. Last night wasn’t good weather. When the storm went through, we had gusts up to fifty-five. Looks to me like this place is a good wind tunnel.”
“Too fast, wind grabs them and pushes them over the bridge?” I asked.
“Only a guess at this point. When Doc does the autopsies, I hope he tests for drugs.”
“He will. An impaired driver would be the last element for a perfect storm.” I turned to Chief Hubler. “Go home, get some rest.”
“Gotta shower first.” He shoved his helmet on his matted hair and walked away.
“Go on, Sarah, you scram too,” Mike said. “The mop-up’s gonna take all day. No use you standing around, waiting.”
“Okay, but first, any idea how much chemical waste got through before the booms went up?”
“From what I’ve heard, the water was on fire. So, maybe not so much.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed. You’ll have my report from the chief on your desk when you get back.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll talk with the Morrowburg VFD tomorrow. This wreck ain’t going nowhere.”
I turned to the creek for a last look. “Damn, I really wanted to nail these guys.”
Mike glanced at me. “They got a longer sentence this way.”
I drove back to Greenglen undistracted by the beautiful spring day. I kept thinking how smug Win looked when she told me about the woman who’d flirted with her. No, not smug, more like pleased or gratified with just a tad of preening.
I could hear Dad’s voice in my head. “Don’t go borrowin’ trouble, Sarah Anne.” And Mom’s. “Keep the green-eyed monster in the basement, Sarah.” A little voice in my heart saying, “Don’t screw this up with unfounded jealousy. If something had happened, do you really think Win would have told you about it?” Would she?
Maybe I hadn’t been generous enough with my compliments, though I didn’t think I needed to say anything. I thought my actions showed how much I appreciated her. Her body and her soul. “Tell her, Sarah. Open your damn mouth and tell her how beautiful she is. How generous. And fun. And…” Everything.
I pulled into my parking place in back of the narrow, three-story brick building that housed the sheriff department. My home away from home and away from Win. I tugged out the gold chain that held the wedding band she’d placed on my finger when we’d married. She knew I couldn’t wear it at work, so she’d given me the chain I could wear around my neck to remind me of her love. I kissed it, tucked it back inside my uniform shirt and opened my car door. “Don’t doubt her. Don’t fall into that damn green-eyed monster’s trap. Trust her. Period.”
Time to keep my mind fully on the job.
* * *
When I got to the early Indiana homestead I shared with my dad, I laid the pizza on the kitchen table and divested myself of all traces of my office except the shirt: jacket, cap and duty belt all went on their proper pegs.
“Bring it on in, Sarah,” Dad said from the living room. “We’ll pretend we’re havin’ a picnic an’ watch IU whup that dang Kentucky team.”
I grabbed a handful of napkins, two plates, piled them on the box and walked into the living room expecting a replay of the IU-Kentucky basketball game on TV. “Baseball?”
“IU got a great team this year,” Dad said. “Since we can’t be there, thought pizza in here’d be the next best thing.”
“When was the last time you went to an IU baseball game?”
“When you was little an’ I took you. Big mistake ’cause you was so bored I spent more time lookin’ after you than watchin’ the game.”
I laid out everything on the coffee table and scooted it toward Dad’s recliner. “Baseball is inherently boring.”
“You’re cranky, Sarah.” He slid a piece onto his plate. “Heard ’bout the RV crash. Shame they done themselves in like that. Be harder to discover their distribution network now.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what’s really bothering me.”
“The leaks that let ’em stay a step ahead of you?”
“I just can’t believe anybody from the department would tip them off.” I settled on the floor, plate in hand. “I can run the financials, but hell, I hate to do that.”
“Been thinkin’.” He took a bite and made me wait. “Mac had time in that building after you was elected, afore you was swore in.”
“Time to do what?”
“Reckon he mighta bugged the place for sheer spite. You know it’s somethin’ Mac would do. You might have your friend Bill do a sweep seein’ as he owes you.”
Yes, he did. Colonel Bill Keller, Marine Corps Intelligence Agency, was rumored to be getting his first general’s star, thanks in great part to what my department contributed to his last investigation, not to mention what Win had done. “Good idea, Dad. But, if we do find bugs, how did that intel get from Mac to Larry Fellows and his meth gang?”
“Dang good question, ain’t it?”
“I’d love to nail Mac on drug charges. It’d finish his cabal forever in this county.” I ate another bite and relished the complex flavors. I settled into dinner, glanced at the TV screen now and then and thought about Rob “Mac” McKenzie. He’d almost bankrupted the trust of the people of the county in his two terms as sheriff. Graft, favoritism and kickbacks were his hallmarks. He’d been behind the candidate who’d opposed me in the last election, busy pulling strings, including trying to out me.
I still didn’t know if the people had voted for me in a landslide despite believing I was gay, or because they hadn’t believed the accusation. Maybe I’d never know and maybe it wasn’t important. Or at least, less important than I keep my integrity. Coming out was a battle still raging in me, mind, heart and soul. I was bone-weary with the issue always looming.
“So what other fleabite ain’t you itchin’?” Dad asked.
I glanced at the screen and guessed it was the seventh-inning stretch. Or maybe the game was over. I’d been woolgathering, trying not to think about Win. I sighed and told Dad about Win’s meeting with “the gorgeous woman.”
“She sound proud?” Dad asked.
“Yeah, a little I think. Why?”
“Think it was her way of sayin’ ‘I weren’t even tempted ’cause I love you too much.’ Afore you two got together, I imagin’ she woulda viewed a gorgeous lady as a challenge an’ not thought twice ’bout acceptin’ it.”
I thought about it. Win had told me about her footloose days, before she’d met Azar. She’d described it not as an emotional garden, but a barren place of sex only. She couldn’t afford attachments, not in the marines. As much as she loved sexual gratification, the lack of a real relationship had left an arid and empty place in her.
“You may be right, Dad. How could I have missed that?”
“You ain’t lived long enough, Sarah Anne.”
* * *
“So when do I get to call you General Keller?” I asked the next morning. I’d called from a pull-off as I headed back into Greenglen from a meeting with state cops. The spring smells, that light mingling of earth and water and warmth, had seduced me. I’d been tempted to stay on the road this morning as long as possible. I inhaled deeply and felt the rebirth in my bones.
“About two months, from what I hear,” Bill said with a laugh. “Where do you get your intel?”
“You’ll never know.” We both knew Win still kept active contacts. I outlined the possibility of bugs, the electronic variety, in the sheriff’s department. “Can you help?”
“Of course. But I’m tied up for a couple of days—preparation for my promotion in D.C.—so would it be okay to send down a couple of my officers?”
“Any help would be greatly appreciated, Bill.”
I disconnected and took another deep breath of spring. My phone rang before I’d had a chance to pull out. Win.
“Good morning, my love. Any chance you’ll be free Friday night?” she asked. “Wonderful singer at Ruby’s.”
“Every chance in the world.” Unless a pressing case came up, but Win knew that. “You sound chipper this morning.”
“Finished my grading and sent them in. I’ll have to go in to turn in the paperwork, but for now, I’m a free woman.”
“Not too free, I hope.”
“Never. I love you, Sarah.”
“I love you too, Win.”
When I got to the station, the first item on my agenda was meeting with my newly formed SWAT deputies, headed by Willy Nesbit. Although he’d run against me for sheriff, backed by Mac, he’d turned out to be a good guy and someone I trusted. Between us, with Win’s input, we’d hired three more members for SWAT who were all ex-military. They were back from the academy for standard police training and ready to pick up patrol duties. I worried how much they might chafe under our procedural restrictions for normal patrol duty.
I walked into the conference room, my notes in a file folder clasped in my sweaty hand. These people were seasoned veterans and I had so little to contribute to their success here. Except the ‘here’ part. “Good morning and let me officially welcome you to the sheriff’s department.” I smiled at them as I sat at the head of the table. “Before we start with my notes, I’d like to know what you thought of the academy.”
Willy grinned, glanced at the others. “The only one who had an easy time is Thea.”
“Easy, my foot,” she said, grinning back at Willy. “Being an MP isn’t the same.”
“A lot of procedure to learn in a short time,” Brandon said. “But I think we got the job done.”
Andy, the fourth member, nodded.
“Caleb’s got copies of the criminal statutes for the county and you’ll need to get them down pat.” I leaned forward and met the gaze of each of them. “When I interviewed each of you, I think I made it clear you won’t be sitting around waiting for ops, you’ll be on patrol. You have a high wire to walk. While you patrol, you need to remember that you’re not at war with the citizens. At the same time, you’ve got to realize there’s no ‘routine’ traffic stop or domestic call. You’ve got to keep your balance. Do you think you can serve and protect—and stay safe?”
Four nods, no hesitation.
“Maybe I realize more than these guys that the most tedious patrol can be deadly,” Thea said. She rubbed the table with a long finger. “Yet we can’t think about a shoot/no shoot situation every time we respond.”
“I couldn’t have said it better. I can’t emphasize enough the danger if you drift into the complacent zone, nor viewing citizens as innately dangerous and the enemy.” I opened the folder. “Here are your assignments. You’re partnered with deputies for the first six months. Listen to them. You’re the rookies here.”
I went through the rest of my list, then asked for questions or comments.
“A four-man unit is small,” Willy said. “Can we do some training with other deputies, bulk up our presence some—just in case?”
“Yes. I’d hoped you’d be willing to do that kind of training, but I won’t begin it until you’ve all settled in.”
I handed each their shiny new badges and shook hands.
When I walked back to the bull pen, I watched two guys move slowly around the area, gadgets in hand. Bill’s troops had arrived.
The lesbian community in Bloomington had slowly enfolded Sarah into its arms. She’d relaxed into the embrace. Friday night, we’d shared a table on the patio with two other couples for dinner. Sarah laughed and joked with them, no longer fearful of being outed. At least not there. When we’d moved into the back room, the performance space, she’d leaned into my arm. Snuggled while we listened to a pitch-perfect singer deliver her smoky lyrics about women loving women.
Tonight we were staying home. Sarah’s turn to say, “Honey, I’m home.” My turn to cook. As we ate my version of narenj palao, an Afghani dish, I could tell she was preoccupied. With work. Shit. I wished she’d find a job that wouldn’t devour her energy. Yeah. Dream on, Win.
“So what’s up?” I asked.
“This is so delicious. You’re going to have to teach me the names of these dishes so I can ask for them.”
“Talk to me, Sarah.”
She glanced at me. “Bill’s guys found electronic bugs all over the department. I can’t seem to stop worrying about them, but they’ll keep. Can I enjoy this wonderful dinner now, and after dinner we’ll talk?”
I was suspicious that talking was the last thing that would happen later. I was wrong. After dinner, we walked to the garden, Des scampering into the underbrush. As we sat on the bench swing in the garden, watching night come on, Sarah began talking.
“That sonofabutt! He makes me furious, Win. He salted the whole place with hidden mics and listened to every op we planned.”
“The sonofabutt—that’s Mac?”
“Of course. We have evidence. Dave Howard gave him up.” She paused in her outburst. “I’m sorry, Win, I can’t remember what I’ve told you and what’s happened since.”
“Then let me debrief you. Who’s Dave Howard?”
“One of Mac’s deputies. I didn’t want to ‘clean house’ when I was elected for the first term and get rid of all of Mac’s hires. I thought it’d make me look like a sore winner.” She pushed us into motion with a nudge of her foot. “Dave seemed okay, did a good job. Not outstanding, but thorough.”
“How’d you turn him?”
“When they found the bugs, Leslie printed them in situ and got enough partials to get a hit. Our own Dave Howard. When we questioned him, he gave up Mac and the whole damn scheme. I should’ve followed my gut and fired them all, damn the consequences.”
“Nothing you can do about that now.” I rubbed her arm. “The other end of the scheme? You know where the receiver is? You’ll need that for evidence, won’t you?”
“You’re catching onto this sheriff stuff,” she said with a small smile. “Nathan’s tracking it, but it’s slow because he’s doing a grid search. I told him to begin the grid at Mac’s, but he said that wouldn’t be kosher.” She jerked when Des snorted her way between us. “Finally, Nathan and his electronic magic found the damn signal. We served the warrant this morning, and Mac’s in jail with a list of charges. DA’s having fun searching the statutes for more. We think Mac sold the task force information to the meth dealers, but we haven’t got the evidence.”
“Good, then it’s over.”
“No,” she said, leaning against me. “When the case hits the news, things are going to explode. Mac still has a lot of supporters who thinks he walks on water.”
“You’re afraid they’ll kill the messenger?”
“It’s a double whammy, Win. I hate him because he was not only a lousy officer, but a felon. I can’t believe he’d bug the department—well, yes I can. But to sell the info to meth dealers is beyond my comprehension.”
“He wanted you to look bad. Probably started out hoping he could find some dirt or incompetence. When that didn’t work, he went one step further.” I pulled her closer. “Not everyone has a sense of honor, Sarah.”
“There was a bug in my office.”
I thought back. I’d been on good behavior when I was in her office. Hadn’t I? “Are you worried you let something slip about us?”
“I think he probably recorded my end of conversations between us. Maybe that’s what he fed that horrible pastor who raised the ruckus.”
“He knew you were talking to a woman, but not who?”
“Yeah. Or he knew I was involved with someone and thought if it was a woman, it’d cause a scandal that would sink me.”
Des nuzzled Sarah. Giving comfort as only a dog can.
“Mac is the gift that just keeps on giving.” She took Des’s head in her hands and planted a big kiss on her muzzle. “Let’s go in, Win. Maybe you can distract me, help me forget this train of thought.”
I kissed her. “That’s a distinct possibility.”
* * *
We’d gone hiking Tuesday, a long trail that wore out both of us. Which was the purpose. It’s hard to worry about something when all of your concentration is required to set one boot after another. When we’d gotten home, we’d gone to bed. To sleep. We’d made up for it this morning.
Then Sarah went to work. Back to the buzzing of doom in her head. So little I could do to help her lift the load.
I wanted to catch Kemat’s presentation at the high school, part of a broad-reaching “tolerance for difference” campaign they’d embarked on after a young girl committed suicide. She’d been targeted because she was gay by a gang of boys who’d raped her. I didn’t think “tolerance” was a strong enough term.
Kemat stood in front of the assembled faculty and students. She’d dressed in Western garb from head to foot. Red power suit, hair swept into a tight French twist, higher heels than were safe. The only clue was a small golden pin on her lapel. The ankh. Kemat’s presentation should’ve been called “myth busting.” She tackled all the boogeyman rumors about Middle East countries and the Muslim faith. Well done, Kemat.
I met her afterward, asked where she wanted to eat.
“Are there any vegetarian places here?” she asked.
“But if you want good coffee, we’ll have to go to another place after we finish eating.”
I took her to the restaurant where I’d met Emily once or twice. At least their wraps were decent. When we’d settled at a table, she fussed a bit. Moved her purse and tote bag from one chair to another. When she’d finally settled, I asked what favor could I do for her.
“I need your help to find Bassir.”
“An Arab? Why me? You must have an extensive network of your own.”
“I do, but I have made little progress.” She frowned, examined my face. “I am well aware of the pattern of your deployments. You were not military police, at least, not for long. Yes?”
I stared at her.
“All right, I can accept you cannot talk about what you did. But I believe you were part of MCIA. Or perhaps, CIA. You did not learn Tajik so well policing military personnel.”
I was grateful the waiter chose that moment to deliver our orders.
We began eating, a little chitchat between bites. When we finished, she took the bill. “Now, if you have time, let us go for coffee.”
Kemat restarted her earlier conversation as soon as we’d placed our order and found a quiet table. “I want you to find Bassir Sadeeq Zulficar.” She handed me a file. “All that I have found is in this file.”
“Kemat, even if I’d been involved with MCIA, I’m no longer an active military member. There’s no intelligence service I have access to. At the very best, I could only hand over the file to a friend who’s still active.”
She shook her head. “I trust you. I have spoken with Tajik friends about you. You have garnered acclaim and affection. That is what I trust, not Bill. Do what you can, and if you fail, then let it be on my head.”
I scanned the first few pages of the file. Journalist, got out of Syria. Disappeared. I looked at Kemat, tried every argument I could think of. She was adamant. No one but me. Finally I said, “I’ll try, but I’m not sure I can do more than ask around about him.”
“Do what you can, Win. That is all I ask.”
* * *
I didn’t refuse because I couldn’t. It was part of the hospitality code in the Middle East. I lugged the file home, set it on my desk. Went for a long walk with Des who was ticked at me because I hadn’t taken her with me for a ride. She loved riding in the truck. I wondered if she thought every time we went out, it was a job for her sensitive nose or killer teeth. Retirement didn’t have meaning for her. How could it?
When we got back, I went through the file as I started making dinner. Wished Sarah was here to share it. As I chopped, I wondered how the hell I could find anyone now. No access to MCIA database or any of the dozen or so databases it opened. Bill had access, but I hesitated asking him. Kemat knew him. How well? But she’d asked me to dig. Conundrum. Depending on what the whole file contained, I could poke around on my own. Kemat asked for my help. I couldn’t say no. Period.
I’d finish reading the file tonight.
My phone rang. I leaned over as I wiped my hands. Sarah. “Are you checking up on me?”
“No, should I?”
“Funny. You find more bugs?”
“No. I just called to ask if I can come over.”
“I’m just finishing up dinner prep. Hungry?”
“Always. Be there in five minutes.”
She disconnected. Hadn’t sounded upset. But we usually kept her visits to a minimum. She was worried that neighbors would think the sheriff was patrolling here way too much. By the time I’d chopped extra veggies to sauté, I heard her car coming up the drive. When she walked through the door, Des gave her a greeting that said, “I haven’t seen you in such a long time!”
Sarah grinned at me. “Dad’s ‘bowling’ night, which means he’s hanging out with Dog. So I won’t stay the night, but I missed you.”
We kissed. Certainly not a June and Ward peck.
“We have to eat first,” I told her. “The quorma’s almost ready.”
“You’re no fun, although eating is a pleasurable pursuit too. Tell me what goes on the table.” She cupped my breast and gave my nipple a tweak through my sweatshirt.
“So why are you so restless tonight?” I asked as we ate.
“We’re transcribing all the stuff Mac recorded. I’m nervous what’ll come to light.”
She nodded. “I’m not doing the transcription. John Morgan and his detectives are.”
“We can’t backspace time, Sarah. Just hope you were oblique enough. That they’re more interested in nailing Mac. You’re working on his phone records aren’t you?”
“Nathan and Caleb are. I’m trying to stay away from the hands-on investigation—why, I don’t know. I named Caleb my chief deputy, gave John Morgan his promotion and Nathan’s a best friend. All my people. When the shit hits the wind, it’s going to land on me.” She ate a few bites, smiled. “What’s up with you? Just tell me every detail so I can listen and not think.”
I understood what Sarah was feeling. It’s the moment before you begin the op with no idea of what you’ll really face. Or maybe an actor waiting for the curtain to rise, not knowing if an audience is out front. Keep the action going. Don’t think about taking a bullet. Or a curtain call. “Emily cut me loose.”
“Wow. That’s great…isn’t it?”
“Yeah. She thinks I’m healing well enough to fly solo. But I can return to the nest if I need to.”
“It hasn’t been easy, has it?”
“Still isn’t. At times. Having you in my life has made it possible for me to move forward, stop living in the past. I love you, Sarah.”
She smiled, a lovely opening of eyes and lips.
“I have a side job.” I outlined the quest Kemat had given me. “I can’t say no. Hell if I know what I can do. Except try.”
“If you need help, Win, ask. As long as it’s legal.”
For a lot of my life, asking for help had been a nonstarter. I didn’t depend on anyone else for anything. Survival. That had begun to change when I started working with small units in the field. We had to depend on one another. Had to ask for what we needed. For all the nightmares those missions caused me, they had pushed me onto the road toward trust. So had the kids, the beautiful and trusting kids I’d met in dusty villages.
That road had led me to Azar. She’d pushed me farther along. To Sarah.
We cleared the table together and settled on the couch.
“I need to feel you in me, Win,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. Straddling me. “It’s in those moments I feel most me, centered, in balance.”