5907 words (23 minute read)

Chapter 1

Dead Right There

One Year Before

        On the second-worst day of his life, Detective John Kelly drove fast into the parking lot and stopped his green unmarked sedan outside the dead man’s apartment, almost skidding but not quite.  Several marked cruisers were parked crookedly near the door. Kelly had to turn his wide shoulders to pass between them.

        It was a sunny November afternoon, Indian summer in Alexandria, Virginia, and surprisingly hot, not a good thing where bodies are concerned, and he said as much to Peterson, the uniformed officer taking names at the door. Kelly checked the names listed on Peterson’s clipboard.

        “No EMTs came in? I see they’re here,” Kelly said, jerking his head toward an idling ambulance out front.

        “Nah. Sarge got here before them, checked in and told ‘em they weren’t needed. They were pissed though. Wanted in.  Might complain.”

        “Complaints are what lieutenants are for.  Got a case number yet?”  

        “871019-145,” the patrol officer read from his notebook.

        Kelly pulled out his own notebook and took down the case number, which began with the year, 1987, and date of October 19 in four digits, and ended with the sequence listing of the call as it came in. “145?  That’s a lot of cases today.”

        “Yeah, the TAC unit was out in the ‘hoods after midnight, got a lot of drug stuff.  Like they do.”

        Kelly nodded toward the apartment.  “What’s his name?  How’s he look?”

         “They got it inside,” he said, and smiled oddly.

        Kelly slipped his sunglasses into his blazer pocket as he entered the dark apartment stairwell, jogged up the stairs and began prepping himself for the case.  Shoes shined, creases sharp, haircut tight.  He was ready. He thought he was having a good day. He was wrong.

        He hurried from excitement, not requirement:  the stiff was old and ripe, his sergeant had told him back at headquarters, so no real need for speed.  But he loved his job, the importance of being a cop and the challenge of a new case, though as a Youth Services detective he would hand this death case off to the first real homicide detective who showed up.  Kelly didn’t mind the relatively lowly assignment to Youth.  He got to protect kids.

        The unit door was propped open to air out the smell. A patrol sergeant stood just inside with two other officers markedly old and young, and Kelly looked to them for a quick rundown.  The sergeant looked at the older patrolman, who nodded to the youngster next to him.  The youngster, a recruit in training, stammered a moment and began.  

         “On Wednesday, October 19, 1987 at four thirt… er, sixteen-thirty hours, we received a call for a suspicious death.  Original call to 911 was at sixteen-twenty-six, first unit on the scene was Peterson at sixteen-thirty- one.  Neighbors from the apartment upstairs smelled something and called management, they came and knocked. Used the master key but found the chain on. The smell made it pretty obvious so they called us.” The recruit checked his notes “We kicked the chain off and entered at sixteen-thirty-nine.  Found him, called for an ambulance and…” He trailed off, unsure of what else he knew worth sharing.

        Kelly looked at the older cop, obviously the recruit’s Field Training Officer and well-known to Kelly. The FTO said, “We secured the apartment, no one else here. Quick look will tell you what this is about, though I’m sure the A Team will give it a good go.”  The A Team was the group of senior detectives usually assigned to death investigations.  Little Alexandria did not have enough murders to warrant a full-time dedicated homicide squad.

        “Did you touch him?” Kelly asked, pulling on latex gloves as they led him through a door to the source of the smell. “Do any CPR or first aid?”

        “What for?  He was very DRT.” Kelly nodded but the young recruit looked puzzled.         

        “DRT,” the FTO said. “Dead Right There.  No reason to go near him, plenty not to.”

        Kelly could see why.  The room was one of two bedrooms in the second floor unit, at the back with no balcony. No furnishings except a weight bench consisting of a padded, adjustable seat with two welded arms rising at each side and ending in V-shaped flanges designed to cradle a laden bar for bench presses. The body lay on the bench, belly up and distended, with the head hanging down off the top of the pad.  A man’s dress belt was buckled around its neck to drape down near the body’s left hand.  The bench faced a large mirror that sat on the floor, leaning against a wall, and a wheeled stand with a small television and VCR, from which a tape protruded.  Large handcuffs secured the body’s thick ankles to the legs of the bench, heavy steel handcuffs, not the padded or furry shackles sometimes found in sex events like these. No pants, and what Kelly first thought was a frayed tee shirt turned out to be a silk teddy with lace trim.  

        “Ain’t self-love grand,” he thought.

        The body was male, white – mostly, Kelly thought ruefully - in his 40s or 50s and nude, except for seventeen clothes pins clipped to various parts of his anatomy. A circle of clips ran around his navel like a little picket fence, pinched to his once-flabby skin with gaps where some had fallen away.  The hot apartment had contributed to the body’s decomposition, and puffy greenish bloat stretched the skin and popped the clothes pins off, leaving dark marks. These matched the purple of the dead man’s feet, hands and buttocks, now filled with drained, dead blood in a process called post-mortem lividity.  

        “Where’s the key?”  Kelly asked the FTO.

        “Bottle on the floor on the other side of him.  String to the key inside is attached to his left wrist.  Floor’s dry now, but discolored from the water that was in it. Looks like he never tried to pull it. Maybe died of a heart attack before the ice melted.”          Kelly knew some thrills-seekers restrained themselves for kicks, but what’s the fun in getting free whenever you wanted? It had to hurt, to last, to be inescapable at least for a while, so the vic secured the key in a bottle of water, then froze it.  The time it took to melt was the time to play.  The belt would be pulled to cinch around the neck and cut circulation in a way, urban legend had it, that would amplify orgasm.  Or accidentally kill. As Kelly peered around the corpse, another clothes pin pinged away, joining others on the floor.

        “Got his name?” Kelly asked.

        The recruit said, “Yes, his ID was in his wallet, in the other bedroom. We found it during the initial check.  Waiting for a detective to get a warrant for the rest of the search.” He stared at Kelly, trying to stifle a look between amusement and horror.  Kelly thought the recruit must have a rather vanilla sex life to be surprised at this.

        “Guess that’s me, unless one of the other guys gets here,” Kelly said. He stepped back from the room with the body toward the living room and leaned to put down his heavy, portable radio. In detective’s clothes he had nowhere to carry it other than a jacket pocket, and it ruined the lines.  As he placed it on a table it squawked with his call number, Unit 60. Headquarters calling him. He brought it back up and keyed the mic.

        “Unit 60, back.”

        “Per the Watch Commander, break from your call and respond to 1241 Airedale Drive for a missing person, juvenile. Code Two.”

        Annoyed, Kelly began to respond, “Headquarters confirm? Break from a sudden death for…”

        Kelly stopped, then ran from the apartment and the surprised uniformed officers there.  His tires squealed before he closed the door as he responded to the address he knew well. His brother’s house.

        The call had gone out 30 minutes before. An eight-year-old  hadn’t got off the school bus at home at the end of the day.  Two officers and a sergeant were dispatched at first, standard procedure.

        There was little to no worry at this point. The first cop on the scene would search the family house: a surprising number of “missing” kids were in fact at home, hiding or just overlooked by a panicked parent.  The majority of  the rest (read: all) kids reported missing in Alexandria were found within minutes or at most a few hours later, wandering home from forgotten or unplanned play dates or late school programs.

        Not this time.

        When the check of the house was negative, the sergeant requested more officers to search and a response from CID, the Criminal Investigations Division.  The mom was asked more and better questions, and better descriptions were broadcast citywide.  An officer checked in at Emma’s elementary school to question teachers and administrators, while another responded to the bus barn to check with drivers for unrecognized kids who maybe got on, and thus off, the wrong bus in the wrong place.  Officers were sent to specific homes of the child’s friends, and other units began knocking door-to-door. Classic police foot work.  Slow and steady, by the book (there really isn’t a book, but…) All normal, untill mom asked the reporting officer to call Detective John Kelly. Kelly specifically. Her brother in law. Emma’s uncle.

        Kelly drove Code 3 to Brenda and Patrick Kelly’s home. Full lights and siren, not authorized but he would deal with that later if anybody called him on it. All the parking spaces in the block were filled with marked cruisers so he drove up on the grass in the yard.  Kelly ran through the familiar front door and hugged Brenda, who burst into tears against his chest.   Brenda had kept the baby weight these eight years since Emma, now missing, was born, but still had a pretty round face and happy eyes.  Kelly always felt happy for his little brother Patrick, happy for a happy wife and two happy kids, kids like Kelly and his own wife Janet had never got around to having. And now Kelly would be the all-powerful big brother again to Patrick and bring home his errant child, Emma.  

        They always came home .Almost always.

        Kelly held Brenda for a full minute and whispered softly to her while raising a finger to stop the sergeant’s report. Her wailing began to abate and she gained control.  Kelly spoke softly.  “Bren, where’s Kate?” He hadn’t seen their ten-year-old.

        “Reading program. She’ll be on the late bus. Can someone get her? I want Kate here. Now!”

        “We’ll take care of that, Bren. Don’t you worry. Did you call Pat?  Yes? Good.”  

        As she calmed, he stepped back and waved to the sergeant to begin.  Kelly stood silently, absorbing the action report. Then Kelly turned it on.

        “Okay.  Door to door from the school.  Four officers, one in each direction.  Not just one to eventually cover each side.  Is the Watch Commander en route?” Meaning, get the Lieutenant assigned as today’s Watch Commander here.  Right now. At the sergeant’s nod, Kelly continued.

        “PIO, for a press release?”  Again, telling the Sergeant to bring the Public Information Officer to the scene.  Kelly lacked the authority to do this but no one would argue with him right now. Certain other things Kelly couldn’t do, but the Lieutenant could.  And he did, when he arrived five minutes later. After a briefing, the Lieutenant got on the radio.

        “Unit 10 to Headquarters, call Fairfax or U.S. Park Police to get us a helicopter with FLIR.”  Forward-Looking Infrared could find a suspect hiding under a parked car from a thousand feet up, so it could easily pick out a child in a park or alley, even in the approaching darkness.  “Unit 10 to the CID Supervisor?

        “Unit 23,” the detective sergeant piped up.

        “10 to 23, let me have all available CID units respond to this address.”  A heavy response so early but it was Kelly’s niece after all.         “Also, Headquarters, hold over the Daylight Shift.”  A big step, costly in overtime to keep Days on duty after their normal end time, but missing person searches were staff-intensive.  

        Emma was eight years old, four-foot-eight in the black and white sneakers she was said to wear.  She had red hair in a thick braid and round brown eyeglasses. Her mother was fairly sure she wore a blue button-down shirt and dark pants and carried her pink backpack when she left for the bus stop that morning.  School administrators were called, and confirmed she was at school all day and was not in any after school activities.  The driver of her bus route said he did not notice her on the bus that afternoon but wasn’t sure, as there were about nine kids that got off at her stop.  Her teacher, reached at home by telephone, reported nothing unusual in her behavior that day.  

        No progress was made making contact with Emma’s friends. None had seen her after school, but two remarked that she was not on the bus going home.  She wasn’t at the rec center, or at any toy, book, candy or other shop on The Avenue.  Units continued to circulate, because she could pop out of any house at any unexpected time.  She’d get home, they always did, but it would be nice to allay Brenda’s fears as instantaneously as possible. And Kelly’s.  And now, Patrick’s, too. Kelly’s brother came home before dinnertime, pushing past the uniform at the door with a blurted, “I live here!” and bursting in the door with panicked eyes.

        “She’s gone.  She’s, I don’t know…” Brenda moaned into his shoulder. “She didn’t come home off the bus.  We don’t, they…” and her control ran out, words melding into a long low wail.  Patrick looked up from nuzzling her collar into Kelly’s eyes.

        “What do we do, John?  Is this serious?  What’s going on?” Kelly’s brother’s eyes burned with dozens more questions.  Kelly closed up behind Brenda, put his hands on her shoulders to wrap her in family, and murmured to Patrick.

        “We run it as dangerous, but it isn’t. I know it’s scary. We always find them. You’re here now, so I’m going out to work on it. I’ll bring her back. Trust me.”  Kelly spoke with the confidence of a big brother and a trained cop, and  the glibness of an experienced liar. Patrick nodded and Kelly broke away.

        As Kelly strode out of the house to personally check that the officers were canvassing, he was hailed by Mike Burgess, the Gazette newspaper reporter.  Kelly started to ignore him, but stopped and breathed in, then approached where Burgess stood at the curb. There was no crime scene tape to keep him back, but Burgess stayed on the sidewalk in front of the house. Kelly responded to Burgess’s wave and walked over.

        “Hope the citizen doesn’t complain about you on their lawn, John.  Is this bigger than it sounds?”  Burgess waved a small hand-held police radio scanner.  

        “I’m related to the family, Mike.  But you can’t use that right now.  What I need now is someone I can call at the TV news. I want to get something, on the air now and not wait till the news at eleven.  You got any contacts?”

        “Sure, John. Let me make sure the stations totally scoop us by giving them the story before I go to print tomorrow.  Related how?”

        “My niece is the one’s missing.  Like I said, you can’t use that.  You have to have friends at Channel 4, or 7 or 9? Or that new one, Fox, what’s it, 5?”

        “Let me make some calls. Can I come in to use the phone in there?”

        “No, we need that line open in case the kid or someone with her calls in to Mom.”  Kelly looked around.  “Come over here with me.”  

        Kelly walked across the lawn to the house next door and knocked hard.  The woman who answered said she was a friend of Brenda and often babysat Emma and her sister when need arose.  “I already told the other officer that she isn’t here.  Is there anything I can do?

        “Yes.  Let this man use your phone, it’s police business, it will help us.” Without waiting, Kelly stepped past the woman into her living room and picked up the phone receiver on the hall table.  He handed it to Burgess and said, “Come back next door when you’re done.”        

        Burgess made calls and walked back to Patrick and Brenda’s house.  Kelly had warned the officer at the door to let him through.  Kelly was speaking low with the trembling, wired parents, and the sergeant was taking information from a parade of officers.  Burgess held himself back, in the hall outside the kitchen, making himself invisible to absorb the atmosphere and pick up details and quotes he usually couldn’t get at crime scenes. Officers continued their canvass, spreading outward from both the school and the family home.  Others continued to circulate and to divert to specific locations as public calls of sightings came in, almost always inaccurate but all had to be checked.  The Lieutenant asked to confirm a helicopter was on the way, and Headquarters said Park Police were available.  Eagle One was overhead shortly thereafter, the intrusive whumping rattle of a Bell UH1 reminiscent of every Viet Nam movie, or for some officers their own real life memories. The radio babbled.

        “Unit 223, respond to 3800 Executive, report of missing person seen entering the lobby there, caller refused to be seen,” said the dispatcher.  

        “”223 direct, any apartment?”

        “Negative, 323.  Unit 242, respond to 509 East Monroe for a report of the missing person in the courtyard, see Mrs. Hernandez in apartment 101.”  

        “Ten four.”

        Numerous other sightings were broadcast.  As each came in, it was noted by the sergeant on a big, white dry-erase board the Watch Commander kept in his trunk for such large-scale calls and had brought into the kitchen which now served as a command post.   Each officer working the call was listed, their current location or area of search plotted on a rough map sketched out in several colors.  A column at one side listed each sighting by time and location. No need to note the results for each sighting.  All were negative.  The board would be closed out and wiped clean with a positive sighting.  It was forgotten entirely in the scramble when Emma was finally found.

        “Shots fired, shots fired!  Unit 241, at 1211 North Quaker Lane, shots fired from inside the apartment.  I’m… I’m ok.  Gimme some units.”  

        Brenda’s house emptied as John squeezed Brenda and told Patrick, “Stay  here.  Stay calm,” like commands to a pet but Kelly’s mind was already on North Quaker Lane with the patrol officer.  Kelly’s car was closest to the door, and  the Lieutenant jumped in with him as he accelerated backwards across the lawn, throwing muddy grass and leaves and banging his back bumper into a parked civilian car before lurching forward and racing toward North Quaker, taillight glass sprinkling as he fishtailed away.  Leaving the scene of an accident was a violation, but the lieutenant waved Go.

        The radio crackled.  “I’m in the hall. Shots fired from inside through the door when I knocked. I’m not hit.”  Unit 241, updating for the responding units and breathing hard.  “I got the hallway.  Next unit cover the rear. Somebody cover the front, outside where my cruiser is.  The apartment’s one level up, windows face the front. Apartment 201.”  241 paused, mic button held down, his excited panting audible. “No sounds from inside. Wait. Wait.  I hear a girl screaming.”

        Kelly and the Lieutenant were the third car on the scene. He ignored the Lieutenant’s order to stay outside and ran into the open entryway.  There, staircases diverged, with one set leading up to the apartments and another, where 241 had taken cover, going down to the laundry and storage rooms.  Kelly ducked next to the officer.  He knew he should have gone to the rear and entered safely through the basement level to come up the stairs under cover, but that would have taken twenty seconds more.  

        241, a senior officer named Powers, was bleeding from a cut above his left eye, wiping it away regularly with his left sleeve while pointing his revolver at the apartment door with his right.  The sleeve was sodden.

        “When’s the last time you heard screaming?”

        “About a minute ago,” Powers said.  “Short.  Sounded like, ‘No.’ Little girl’s voice. Then a male voice.  Nothing since.”

        Kelly heard more units skidding up, heard the Lieutenant direct them on the radio.  Heard him call for an SOT callout to activate the Special Operations Team, members of which served in various duties throughout the Department and came together when emergency calls required.  This required. And for the Hostage Negotiation Team. Kelly was HNT, but knew he wouldn’t be used to negotiate for his niece’s life.  Though he would do it best.  “You talk with them?”

        Powers shook his head, winced.  “Nah, I just knocked. We had a call, complainant said she saw a girl matching go into the building with a male.  Said maybe this apartment ‘cause the lights went on.  White male or Hispanic, dark jacket, no further.  I knock, male said who’s there. I said police. Three shots through the door.  I was off to the side but I got hit with something, fragment maybe or part of the door. I’m alright.”  Powers had to shout now over the roar of the hovering Eagle One, whose spotlight brought daylight to the courtyard but left the entry way and stairs in relative gloom.

        “Go get yourself fixed up. Go out the back door.”

        “Nah, I’m fine. Staying,” Powers said, wiping his eye clear again

        Kelly tried to get the Lieutenant on the radio but too many units were responding, confirming locations, getting repeats on the description.  “Shots Fired” brought everyone, even officers from Headquarters or who had been operating on other channels and uninformed of the focus of this call.  After a minute of jumbled transmissions blocked his own, Kelly told Powers, “Get out of here, tell the LT what we have and get yourself patched up.”  Kelly yelled over the roar of the orbiting helicopter.  “Tell the LT where I am and what I can see and what I can cover from here.  Go now.”   Powers acquiesced to the tactical need and scuttled away down toward the rear exit, telling Kelly he’d send a backup or come back himself.

        All but one of the bulbs were out in the dim stairway and the shifting helicopter spotlight alternately lit the courtyard, leaving Kelly in comparative darkness, or shone partway under the overhang onto the stairs and caught Kelly in its scattered glare. Kelly hunkered down more when spotlit and rose again to cover the door but his patience ran out.  He had to get close to the door, to hear if the guy was talking, or Emma was screaming, or worse.  Maybe he’d just go through the door, not wait, go right now. Take action.  Save her.  Not wait.  More cruisers pulled up on the edge of the parking lot away from the front-facing windows of the target unit, and a car alarm began bleating.  As the spotlight shifted away from Kelly again, and he heard officers clattering in through the back lower level apartment entrance, Kelly stood erect, climbed the stairs fast but walked slowly to approaching the door, gun out at eye level.  He took a step and saw the bullet holes, rims shiny and sharp and splayed outward jaggedly, about heart-high.  He took another step forward and the door opened in front of him, inward, and a small leg in pink jeans and a black-and-white sneaker began to slide out into view.         

        Kelly stopped dead.   Reflexively he had pointed his revolver at the leg, but it was Emma’s leg so he aimed away.  Her arm, then her other leg then her full body edged out.  She faced back into the apartment, one little eye obscured and cheeks wrinkled in the hand of a man who reached around her with his arm under hers and up her chest.  He looked down, not at Kelly.  His right hand held a chrome revolver, its barrel in Emma’s mouth, pointing straight in and she coughed around it.  She was panting, gasping, breathing hard around the horrid thing in her mouth that glinted in the shifting light.  Her eye was locked up on the man and she never saw Kelly till he spoke her name, softly not to startle but loud enough to carry over the clatter.  

        “Emma.  Emma, it’s gonna be alright.  Emma, it’s Uncle John right here.  It’ll be be okay.”  Only the side of her face was visible but her eye reacted to Kelly’s words.  Reacted with maybe more fear. Bewildered at a friendly voice within all this terror.   Her body twitched and her head tried to turn, but was held even tighter by the clenching hand of the suspect, her pudgy cheeks puffing out around the gun barrel.  Kelly the cop, the negotiator, had to study the suspect but Kelly the man, the uncle, could not break his gaze from Emma’s confused and frightened eye. Safety so close, she had to think, but danger still there, why?  

        “Shut up. Shut up, Uncle John,” the man said.  The sneer in his voice was soft, oddly flat, almost inaudible.  Mean eyes. “Stop there.”  Hard to hear with the helicopter, the shouts of the other cops now in the stairwell.  The suspect walked Emma forward in front of him, his arms up and elbows out.   He was a small man, white with thin blond hair.  Jeans and a dark jacket that looked dirty.  His face was dirty, too. Brown cowboy boots.  One of Emma’s sneakers was missing, and her sock was torn at the ball of her foot.  As the suspect spoke he gestured with his arms, raising them slightly in cadence with his words, and the gun barrel lifted Emma’s face, pressing hard up against her front teeth.  

        Kelly was just fifteen from them, aiming his pistol at the furrow between the suspect’s eyebrows.  He could take the shot.  He knew he could make that shot, five yards, the shortest distance they fired from at the police range, straight through the suspect’s nose to the top of the spinal column, cut his strings before he could pull the trigger but even a tiny miss, an inch off with the weapon in Emma’s mouth, any involuntary dying muscle spasm could trigger a shot and end her.  And Kelly knew the moment he fired, the uniforms in the stairwell would open up in sympathetic fire, maybe taking Emma out with the suspect.  No. No no no no no.

        “Get back, get back, get back,” the suspect hissed.  He ground the pistol deeper into Emma and stepped forward.  Emma gagged and sobbed.

        “Okay, okay. It’s gonna be okay, we’re all calm, it’s all good,” Kelly shouted at the man. “What do I call you?”

        Kelly stepped backward to maintain a distance, toward the stairs leading down from the apartment landing to the courtyard.  Orders from the Lieutenant on a cruiser PA loudspeaker and shouts from officers outside the building and in the stairwell now were unintelligible under the pounding clatter of the helicopter. Dozens of officers, he knew, would be arrayed outside the building, fanned out around the entryway, behind cars and at corners.  Let him come out, Kelly thought as he stepped backward, matching their pace.  

        “I’m Pickett,” the man said, almost unheard in the roar, finally looking up at Kelly.

        Emma moaned unintelligible words, muted by the gun barrel in her face and drowned out by the noise of the scene.  Kelly thought she screamed, “Uncle John.”  

        “Uncle John,” Pickett said, unheard in the roar but Kelly read his lips.  The suspect’s mouth clenched, his face low near Emma’s terrified eyes.  Kelly took another step back.   Pickett slid his left hand up the front of Emma’s chest to cup her chin and force two dirty fingers into her mouth around the barrel of the gun, which slid out to bring the muzzle clear of her lips. Pickett yanked down on her chin and her mouth opened in a dark moan behind the shiny gun barrel, now pointing almost straight up, maybe away from her now.

        Pickett and Emma shuffled forward toward the hand rail above the stairs leading down and a shotgun barrel entered Kelly’s view, trained upward on the suspect from the stairwell below.  Before Kelly reached the end of the landing, he stopped and raised both hands wide, pistol now palmed and aimed away, pointed up in a big gesture to keep Pickett’s eyes on him and not down on Emma or the cops below.

        And Kelly holstered his gun, spreading his arms wide again.

         The kidnapper slowly raised his gaze at Kelly’s supplication.  The helicopter swooped low, almost stopped at a point over the courtyard and behind Kelly, at its loudest so far.  Pickett fixed Kelly with a stare flat then suddenly furious. Kelly focused closely on the gun and it became massive in his sight.  Time lengthened, stopped.

        “We can work...” said Kelly, shouting over the copter engine’s clatter and percussive hammering of its rotor, each blade’s passage now distinct, whap…whap…whap.  . His eyes, fixed down, on the gun, missed the suspect’s sudden, crooked smile. All he saw was his own face reflected in the chrome, then the twitch of Pickett’s finger triggering the hammer, which seemed to move with preternatural slowness, falling with an audible click and, after an eternity, the gun roaring. The orange muzzle flash burst across the front of Emma’s face as the bullet flew unseen. Before Kelly or any cop could react, Pickett threw the gun down and kneed Emma in the back to push her toward Kelly, then spun to face the wall.

        Kelly dove forward and caught Emma as she collapsed straight down onto loose knees.  He caught her head as she fell face-first toward the concrete landing, mindless to the crashing impact on his elbows, cradling her with his muscled forearm then scuttling to cover her still body with his bulk and shield her from the shotguns now fully extended up through the railing at the suspect. Officers from the stairwell jumped over Kelly and swarmed the suspect, hitting him hard, denied the chance to shoot when he disarmed himself, ramming him into the wall and pulling him down.

        As the scrum of cops and suspect crashed to the floor, Kelly and Emma huddled motionless. Kelly moved his face closer to Emma’s ear and told her, “It’s alright now, hon.  It’s alright, Emma. I got you.  You’re ok. Emma, you’re ok.”  He whispered despite the copter’s roar, face tight to her hair.  After a moment Kelly looked up, away from her and saw the suspect was handcuffed, his gun pushed away and locked down under a cop’s boot.  

        “Get him out of here. Check the apartment.” Kelly shouted.  He turned to Emma, covering her, and his lips felt wet in her hair. “You’re okay now, hon.”

        A minute later, with the suspect gone and the apartment cleared of any other potential threat, the Lieutenant knelt beside Kelly, still prone and protective, and clasped his shoulder.  Kelly felt safe and looked up, but saw the Lieutenant flinch back.  Kelly began to lift himself clear of Emma’s small form, gently lifting her face toward his as his forearm came off the concrete.  Her little head flopped back, and a gout of blood pushed out of her mouth and splashed warmly on his arm, shiny and black in the shifting glare.  

        The shot hadn’t missed. Her eyes were still open, locked on Kelly’s but fading, not shiny any more, not reflecting the strobing lights all around the stairwell.  As he looked, her left eye wandered and a tiny line of blood formed on her eyelid. She was shot right in front of them.  In front of him.  Unprotected by him.  Her blood was on his arm, and had drenched her face and his while he whispered to her, whispered comfort and reassurance, both untrue.  Lies she may have heard as she faded and died in front of them all.  She was dead in his arms.

        Dead right there.