CURSING, MORGAN WINSTON groped in the darkness for the cell phone, threatening to vibrate itself off his nightstand. He had barely gotten to sleep, and he deeply resented the intrusion. Sweeping the phone up seconds before it would have crashed to the floor, he waited a moment for the fog behind his eyes cleared enough to read the phone’s display.
The caller ID revealed that the call came from the town police chief’s personal cell phone. Morgan cursed under his breath. He inhaled, growled, cursed, and only then did he smash the icon to take the call. One does not generally refuse a late-night personal call from the chief of police.
“TOM! Do you have any idea what time it is?” Morgan shrieked.
Morgan had to pull the phone away from his ear. The deep rolling guffaw issuing from the phone told Morgan that he would probably not like whatever this was about. Tom, as usual, knew precisely what he was doing.
“Well, hello, Morgan. It’s not yet midnight. Good evening to you, too. Did I wake your little self? Did you turn in early?”
“Of course, you woke me. It’s the middle of the night. What is this about?”
“Aw, the night is still young. You’re just an old fogey. Hey, roll your scrawny ass out of bed and come to the child services office.”
“You do remember where child services are, don’t you? I mean, you’re retired and all. I thought you might have forgotten all of us working stiffs.”
“That was the plan when I retired. I intended to leave all that chaos behind and live the quiet life of a distinguished and accomplished senior citizen of this magnificent small community. I am retired. You do know that. Why do you need me to come to child services?”
There was that laugh again. “I’ve no intention of spoiling the surprise, but if this plays out the way I think it will, I’m going to laugh my ass off. Man, you’re so in the dunk tank.”
“Ha, Ha! Very funny! Tom, you can drive a man to drink.”
“I’ve heard that. Oh, by the way, take a shower first. I’m so going to enjoy this. You should never have retired. You know what they say about paybacks.”
Morgan growled. “I’ll be there when I get there.”
“See you then!”
Morgan heard the chief laugh as he hung up the phone. Whatever this was, it had a significant disaster written all over it in big letters. At least one thing was certain. Morgan knew that the call did not involve one of his past clients. Chief Barnard treated those matters with the utmost dignity and professionalism. He might be a small-town police officer, but he had worked as a state trooper before becoming the police chief. He knew what he was doing.
Morgan showered and decided he had probably better shave as well. He kept turning the call over in his mind and found himself back where he started. He had no idea what was going on, but there were a few things he could eliminate. If one of his former clients had done something stupid and gotten themselves arrested, again, Tom would have had a much different tone of voice.
Morgan approached the Lowcountry County Government Office Building. The moistness of the pavement and clinging dampness of the night air reminded him of how many nights he had walked through these doors to mitigate or mediate some family’s pain. While he respected and admired the job the people in this building did, it bothered him that their services were needed. It pained him that families broke up in ways that could hurt and permanently damage all concerned. There was often little he could do but staunch the bleeding and bandage the open wounds. When he got the chance to nail an abuser to the wall, he did so with a vengeance. Once he sent someone away, they rarely came back.
The security guard cheerfully greeted Morgan and directed him to one of the interview rooms. Morgan noticed that the metal detectors and scanners purchased before he retired were still crated in the building’s lobby. Unlike the courthouse, the office building did not yet have metal detectors or barricades, so Morgan strode straight in. The guard was apparently aware of whatever lay in wait for Morgan in the interview room. Like all of Chief Barnard’s people, this guard took his job seriously. While he was always polite, courteous, and as calming as he could be to the frightened children that crossed his door, Morgan had never seen him laugh. He laughed when he saw Morgan’s approach.
Police chief Tom Barnard sat at one end of the table playing a card game with a girl of perhaps nine years old. Another girl of maybe eleven was curled up asleep in a chair. A woman sat at the table. Her face was down on the table, resting on her arms. Her long hair fanned out, hiding her face. Her rhythmic breathing testified to the fact that she was asleep. A female police officer sat in the corner of the room, reading a novel.
Morgan greeted the female officer. “Hello, Officer Sanchez.”
The officer nodded. “Hello, Counselor Winston. Counselor, no one has been put under oath. We don’t intend to prosecute anyone for something that may or may not have happened fifty years ago. Anything you say in this room will be kept in the strictest confidence.”