19 - The Sheriff Loses His Grip

Fred pulled into a space outside the La Paz County Regional Hospital reserved for official use outside of the Emergency Room entrance. As he gets ready to turn the engine off, his cell phone rings. It's Judy, his wife. They had a major blow-up before he left this house this morning, and Fred figures Judy is calling to say she’s feeling better and wants to make up. This was the typical pattern for Judy. Fred and Judy would get into a fight, but she always seemed to be the one to capitulate. 

The fight this morning was different. ‘Hell! Judy was different now,’ Fred thought to himself. She had a different look in her eyes. She was clear-headed and determined - not mousy and withdrawn like she’s been for years. At first, Fred thought she might be having an affair. Christ! She was on the phone all the friggin time. Then he learned that the person she was talking to was a lady she met at one of those ’12-step’ meetings. The fight this morning started when Fred went into one of his rants about their credit card bill. 

Judy has been driving all over western Arizona with that woman she was talking to on the phone… ‘service work’ Judy called it. Fred called it a boondoggle, and this morning he blew up when he saw the $400-plus gas purchases on the credit card. He had laid into her really heavy. His vitriol surpassed even the time Judy had wrecked the brand-new car Fred bought her. She’d only had the new Caddy for a couple of weeks when she smashed into a stop sign and then a concrete bench at a bus stop - out of her mind on Oxy. This morning he slapped her really hard and hit her with a barrage of expletives. But this time, Judy held her own and warned Fred. “There’s going to be consequences,” she yelled at him as he walked out of the house. 

“Ok, Judy, make it quick! I’m right in the middle of something.” “It’s over, Fred!” “What’s over?” Fred asked. “Us! That’s what’s over. I’m done! I’m tired of pretending there’s anything left worth saving in our marriage,” Judy said as she struggled to keep her voice from quivering. Fred picked up on that. “Look, Judy, I know I can be a real prick sometimes, but you know how I am with spending money. I said some things this morning I probably shouldn’t have said.” Judy didn’t flinch. “You just don’t get it, do you darling,” she said sarcastically. “This is not about your fucking rant this morning! Look, Fred, I’ve rediscovered a part of myself that I thought was gone forever. That part of me that I thought was gone forever… lost at the bottom of a pill bottle. I’m just not going to lay down and let you walk all over me anymore.” 

Fred could feel the back of his neck stiffen. It was like someone cranked up a blowtorch right behind his head.  A sharp thud of pain shot across his temples as his anger began to boil over. He tried momentarily to hold it down, but nope! No such luck. “You fucking bitch! Where do you get off telling me we’re through? We’re through when I fucking say we’re through! I’ll rain a shit-storm down on you-“ the call disconnected. Fred almost threw the cellphone out the car window onto the pavement. Instead, he let it fall from his hand onto the seat next to him. As he did, a text popped up on the phone. It was from Judy, “I won’t be here when you come home.”  Fred thought to himself, ‘I don’t have time for this shit.’ 

Fred stared out the windshield of his cruiser. His mind was still racing with anger. He took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself down. He needed to have his wits about him right now. He had come to the hospital under the façade of a simple ‘brotherhood’ visit to a fallen fellow peace officer, but Fred knows why he’s really there. After all, he’s a master at hiding a bad motive underneath a good one. What he really wants to do is evaluate the severity of Damian’s injuries. ‘Is this guy even going to survive?’ Fred asks himself. If he is, Fred’s determined to explain to Damian he’s making a big mistake if he thinks he can take down Fred Koontz. 

Koontz calls dispatch to inform them he’ll be off duty while visiting someone at the hospital. Fred walks into the ER and heads to the nurse’s station. “Hi, Sheriff!” Connie, the perky redhead behind the counter, greets him. “Hi, Miss Williams,” says Koontz. “Where’s the trooper they brought in?” “Oh, they moved him to ICU overnight, Sheriff. He’s burned pretty bad. I think they’re trying to stabilize him so they can move him to the Burn Center in Phoenix. He someone ya know, Sheriff?”  “No. Not really. Just paying a professional courtesy,” Koontz replied. “He’s not supposed to have any visitors, Sheriff, but I’m sure it’ll be ok to just pop in real quick,” said Connie. “Maybe some words of encouragement will do him good,” said another nurse standing behind Connie. 

Koontz headed down a hallway toward the ICU when he runs into a doc he knows heading back to the ER. “Hi, Fred! You hear to see the trooper?” the doc asks. “Yeah. How’s he doing, Mel?” Koontz asks. “Well, in one sense, he’s one lucky guy. Yes, he has third-degree burns on his back and his right arm. First and second degrees burns a whole bunch of other places, but miraculously, no other serious injuries. The paramedics who brought him in said that he saved a woman’s life,” the doc said. “Hell! She only got a few bumps and bruises. We released her last night. Evidently, he pulled up behind her, broken down on the shoulder of Route 95. I guess a runaway truck carrying gas cylinders almost smashed right into them. Instead, it went off the road, crashed into something, and blew up.” “Really!” Fred exclaimed. “I haven’t talked to anyone about the accident yet,” the sheriff added. “Yeah, at the last second, I guess the trooper pushed the woman to the ground and covered her as a giant fireball engulfed the whole scene. They’re lucky their vehicles were between them and the explosion. Otherwise, things would have been much worse,” the doctor said. 

The stiffness returned to the back of Fred’s neck. Yes, indeed, the trooper would most likely survive, and now he was a friggin hero. Crap! Fred felt a churning in his gut. “Thanks, Mel. I’ll just look in on him to wish him well,” Koontz said. “Awesome, Sheriff. I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. He should be awake. I was just in his room checking on him.” Fred headed down the hallway to the ICU and the big double doors that separate the unit from the rest of the hospital. As he walks into the unit, he stops by the nurse’s station. “Trooper Fernandez?” Fred asks. The nurse doesn’t speak but points to Room 103. “Thanks,” Fred says. 

Damian is lying on his side facing away from the door and doesn’t see the sheriff enter the room at first. Laying on his side feels more comfortable, not putting any pressure on a massive burn wound that runs the entire left side of his back. There’s a putrid smell hanging over the room, probably from Damian’s open wounds. Fred approached the bed when Damian realizes someone has entered the room. “Is that you, Doc?” Damian asks. “No, trooper, it's Fred Koontz from the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office.” Fred notices Damian’s body suddenly stiffen. Damian turns his head slightly to a spot at the end of the bed where Sheriff Koontz is now standing. “How ya holding up?” Fred asks. “Ah… about as good as one could expect, given the circumstances,” Damian replies. “If there’s anything I can get you, just let me know, trooper.” “It’s Damian, Sheriff. You remember me? We met awhile back out on I-10, at that head-on crash scene a little over a month ago.” 

“Oh yeah! I remember you now. You’re that new guy working out of the Yuma office, right?” “Well, I’m not new to the APD, but I am new to the Accident Investigation Team,” Damian replies. “Oh yeah, that’s right - crash investigations. How’s that going?” Fred asks. He looks down and sees that both of Damian’s legs are covered with some sort of weird bandages. There are flecks of dried blood here and there. “It’s going ok,” Damian responds hesitantly. “How about that I-10 investigation? The one you just mentioned. How’s that one going?” Fred asks as his eyes narrow intently on Damian. Damian, sensing the sheriff is fishing, replies. “Sheriff, you know I can comment about an ongoing investigation.” 

Koontz's eyes scan out the door of the ICU room and down the hallway. Then he turns back to Damian, except now he’s placed his right hand firmly on the middle of the bandage on Damian’s left leg. He starts squeezing, and a little fresh blood seeps through the dressing. “Cut the crap, kid! We both know you’re on some kind of joyride vendetta to get me!” Fred says, trying to keep his voice from being heard outside the room. Expecting a cry of pain from Damian, Fred is surprised when the young man just smiles. “What’s the matter, Sheriff? You don’t have anything to hide, do you?” Damian responds slowly and sarcastically. “Oh, and you’re gonna need to press a lot harder than that if you expect a pain response from me. The docs have me so full of Demerol right now I can barely feel myself breath.”  

Fred quickly removes his hand and scans the door again, then turns back to Damian and leans forward. “Look here, ‘junior G-man’ I’ve been doing this job ever since you were sucking on your momma’s titty. If you think you’re going to bring me down with some nonsense that Jankins woman is feeding you, then you are sadly mistaken.” Damian’s eyes widen, and he’s momentarily at a loss for words. ‘What does the sheriff know?’ Damian thinks to himself. 

“Look, kid. One! You’re overstepping the scope of your investigation - big-time. And Two! Eileen Jankins is a floozy, and no one, I mean NO ONE! - is going to take her seriously.” “Sheriff, I think I need to rest now. You should leave,” Damian says as he pushes the call button for the nurse’s station. “Yes, Mr. Fernandez. What do you need?” a voice sounds off from a speaker on the wall. “Nurse, I think the bandage on my leg needs changing,” Damian responds. “We’ll be right in,” the voice over the speaker says. 

“Remember, I warned you, kid! I’m going to your boss and let him know you’re on some kind of stupid witch hunt when you should be just doing your job.” Fred kicks the bottom post of the bed so hard the whole room shakes. “Give it your best shot, Sheriff,” Damian quips. Sheriff Koontz storms out of the room, almost bowling over the nurse who has come to replace Damian’s bandage. “Geez! What’s his problem?” the nurse growls. “Oh, he’s got his balls in a vise, and they’re about to get squeezed,” Damian crows cynically. The nurse just gives Damian a strange look and starts attending to bloody dressing. 

To be continued… 

 

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