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The media swarmed around the outside gates. Bottom feeders fighting for a morsel of information, Detective Alexandra Thomas thought with annoyance. She pushed her way through the crowd of reporters and flashed her badge at the uniforms that tried to block her progress into the building. Her partner materialized next to her as soon as she entered the Queen Street Learning Home. She wondered if he had waited long.
A quick glance around the room revealed police personnel questioning children while the parents hovered nearby. The officer’s palmcues recorded every response, nervous tic and change in facial expression.
“Status?” she asked her partner, Dane.
“One ten-year-old male victim. D.O.S. Single bullet through the heart. Shooter unknown. No other injuries.”
Dead on scene. She suppressed a shudder as she peered at the open main room of the learning home. Computer terminals sat in neat rows among the work centers. Bright posters and various craft projects decorated the walls and hung from the ceiling. The atmosphere had been designed to create a nurturing and loving environment for the children. The room was clean, no blood.
“Where?” she asked.
“Outside, in the socialization area.”
Damn, she thought. “So we’re looking at a school yard shooting?”
Dane’s expression remained impassive and blank. “School?” he asked.
Rookies, she cursed under her breath. His black hair had been shaved close to his scalp, and he wore an unremarkable gray off-the-rack Sears’s suit. Even his washed out blue eyes lacked any hint of creativity.
She was a twenty-year veteran. Why did the department saddle her with this humorless inexperienced tank? He made her feel ancient, a wrinkled wise woman giving out sage advice through gaps in her teeth. At forty-one she was old enough to remember schools, and remember the last school massacre that finally motivated the country to revamp the whole educational system.
Taken from her overcrowded classroom, she had been reassigned to one of the fledgling learning homes. Ten students per teacher slash counselor, making school violence a horror of the past. Until now, Alex thought. A feather of fear brushed her stomach.
She refused to explain history to Dane. “Any witnesses?” she asked instead.
“Not to my knowledge. The interrogation is still on-going,” Dane said in his stiff tone.
She wasn’t sure if Dane lacked basic social skills, or was afraid of her, or just had no interest in establishing a more relaxed relationship. I’m some detective, she thought. I can’t even understand my own partner. Alex grew tired of having to hammer on him to get a reaction. And faced with a high profile murder with a hungry media salivating outside the door, she didn’t have the energy to spare for him.
“Victim’s parents are in the kitchen.”
“Has anyone questioned them?”
“No. We’re waiting for you.”
She clamped her mouth shut, suppressing a flow of curses and headed with Dane toward the kitchen only to stop at the door.
“Victim’s name?” she asked with exasperation. Her last partner would have given her all the details in one smooth monologue.
She smoothed the skirt on her brown tweed suit and pushed through the kitchen doors with Dane at her heels. Mr. and Mrs. Weaver slumped at the kitchen table. Shoulders hunched, glazed eyes rimmed with red, they grasped steaming cups of coffee in their hands. The soothing tone of the police counselor’s voice filled the room.
With a glance, Alex knew that words couldn’t penetrate their grief. They held themselves tight, hardly daring to move as if they were cracked shells, brittle and about to crumble. She knew they had lost a vital part of their existence, and no words could fill that emptiness.
The counselor introduced the detectives and slid from the room.
“Mr. and Mrs. Weaver, I realize this is a bad time for you, but I need to ask you some questions,” Alex said. She toggled on her palmcue, and checked to make sure the microphone worked. Entering the crime parameters into the palmcue, the small screen flashed a list of questions.
Mrs. Weaver stared out the window. Mr. Weaver looked at Alex and then Dane. His gaunt face lost all color as his eyes jumped back to her. Looking wildly around the kitchen, Mr. Weaver tensed as though he were about to bolt. Instead, with a visible effort, he calmed and took a sip of his coffee. His hand trembled.
“Questions? What kind of questions?” he asked his coffee cup.
Alex scanned the palmcue’s display. Mr. Weaver’s heart rate and respiration had doubled. This guy was freaked.
“Questions about your son, sir,” Alex said as gently as she could.
“I know, sir. Was your son having any problems?”
“Anyone after him? Was he having trouble with a classmate, or dealing drugs, or involved in one of the Internet gangs?”
“No way. My son is...was an angel. Honor student. Community volunteer. Everyone loved him.” Tears streaked down his face, but he made no effort to wipe them away. “No drugs. No way.”
With the improvements in the educational system, only drugs remained a problem. Enhancement drugs were the in thing. Improving learning skills and memory, they were the substance de jour among teenagers and college students.
“Do you have other children, sir?” Sibling rivalry could turn nasty at times.
“No. Just Brian. Too expensive. The education tax takes a third of my pay.”
Alex sympathized with him. That ed-tax bit a hunk out of her meager salary and she didn’t even have any children. She followed her list of questions. Mr. Weaver relaxed as the inquiry switched to a more mundane, fact-gathering tone -- child’s full name, date of birth and so on. The parents were dealing with an unimaginable loss, no sense pushing too hard on the first interview. Although, Mr. Weaver’s vitals spiked again when she asked about his whereabouts this morning and about his place of employment. Odd.
“Thank you, Mr. Weaver. We’ll be in touch if we need any more information. Also we’ll update you regarding the investigation into your son’s killer.”
At the word ‘killer’ Mr. Weaver’s fingers crushed the Styrofoam cup, splattering coffee everywhere. He jumped to his feet as the hot liquid soaked into his pants.
“Mitchell.” Mrs. Weaver admonished. She pointed to the mocha spots on her cream-colored jacket.
It was the first word she had uttered since Alex had arrived. Lost in her own world of pain, only a laundry problem could rouse the grieving mother.
“Sorry, dear,” he said, making the stains worse as he tried to wipe them with a coffee-soaked napkin.
Dane came to the rescue with a wad of paper towels, and Alex used the distraction to leave the room. She had gotten what she needed; comforting noises and empty funeral words were best left to the police counselor. Alex preferred dealing with her computer and criminals rather than holding hands with the victims.
She headed outside. The media thrashed at the metal fence, shouting questions at her. Their ever-present cameras hovered above the throng, staying at the fence. The police would confiscate any cameras that dared to cross into a crime scene.
Ignoring the media, Alex made a circuit of the playground. Socialization area my ass, she thought. The design hadn’t changed in thirty years, except that everything was made out of rubber so a child really had to make an effort to get hurt.
Alex made notes into her palmcue regarding the ring of video cameras on top of the fence. The smell of burnt dust lingered in the air. The forensics team had been here with their metabolic scanners, sucking and analyzing every molecule in the area. Her palmcue beeped. The initial police computer report had been compiled. All the information gathered from the uniforms at the scene had been sorted and correlated. That was the best part of modern police work.
The victim, Brian had been sitting on the slide when he had been shot. The kids had thought it was a firecracker and barely remembered the noise. It wasn’t until Brian sprawled unmoving at the bottom that they realized something was wrong. No other shots had been fired. No other injuries. Alex studied the sliding board. A wide brownish-red stain streaked down the middle. Poor kid, she thought. Why him? The target or the innocent bystander?
Dane came up beside her, and she twitched with surprise. He might be the size of a tank, but he moved with an uncanny grace. At six foot four inches tall, he towered over her own five foot seven inch frame and that included the two inches from her chocolate-colored pumps.
“What’s next?” he asked.
“Get the tapes from the uniforms,” she said, pointing to the ring of cameras. “We’ll conference at the office.”
“Right,” he said. He headed toward the building.
She studied the learning home, remembering the confusion she had experienced going from a class with forty other kids to a class where the teacher actually knew her name. How she had felt as if she was under a giant microscope, being analyzed and compared to the other children. Was she normal? Would she go mental and shoot up her school?
When she was older she had learned that the educational system had resigned itself to the fact that, instead of just teaching math and science, they would have to focus on each child’s emotional and physical needs as well, even stepping in as surrogate parents when the real parents had no interest in raising their own children.
Back at the police station, Alex had just sat down at her computer workstation when the Chief called her into his office.
“Blood sucking media,” he said when Alex shut the door. “The Commissioner is practically standing on my shoulders demanding an arrest.” He straightened his tie in the mirror. “Case isn’t even four damn hours old and I’m supposed to go to a press conference.” He combed his thin gray hair and flicked bits of his lunch from his wide teeth.
Alex plopped in a chair and watched him preen. His harsh words belied his actions. He was eagerly anticipating the conference and all the media attention. There hadn’t been a case like this since the drug Hance hit the market. The enhancement drug turned out to be addictive, and overdosing either caused permanent brain damage or left the user dead. It shot from the pharmacists to the drug dealers as quick as a channel change.
“Status?” the Chief asked.
“I haven’t looked at the full report yet. I just got back,” Alex said. She tried to suppress her annoyance. If she wasn’t in here being grossed out by the wet bread clinging to the mirror, she could be looking for the murderer.
“Give me what you’ve got.”
She flipped her palmcue open and recited the findings from the preliminary report. He could have accessed the case from his own terminal, but he was the classic old timer, resistant to modern technology.
“The father seemed jumpy. Nervous. The palmcue indicated that he could be hiding something,” Alex said.
“A possible suspect?
“No, he’s got a vacuum-packed alibi. Just a feeling that there’s something else going on.”
“The man just lost a son. Give him a break.”
She nodded and headed toward the door.
“Hey,” he said. “No rest until the killer’s caught. It’s my ass on TV.”
“If I find the killer, how about a new partner?” Alex asked. She wasn’t the type to ruffle feathers, but she had been a detective for ten years and she shouldn’t be subjected to babysitting rookies. Or better yet, she thought to herself, no partner. The sophisticated police computer was the only associate she needed. But suggesting to the Chief that he break an antiquated police tradition of having partners would be considered heresy.
“And if you don’t find the perp?” the Chief asked.
“With full pension of course.”
She closed the door on her way out and found Dane working at his terminal. He reviewed the videotapes from the surveillance cameras at the Queen Street Learning Home.
“Let me know if you see anything,” she said.
She read the entire police report with care. Noting details that the computer classified as insignificant; she knew from prior experience that sometimes these details led to an arrest. The computer was quick and efficient, but lacked human intuition, the soul of detective work.
Dane stood next to her terminal, waiting until she looked up.
“Got something,” he said.
She followed him back to his workstation. A frozen picture of kids in the middle of play lit the screen. Dane pushed a button. Watching with a growing lump of dread in her stomach, she saw the children race around. They wore jackets against the chilly fall air. They had leaf fights and played tag. Then -- pop -- a black-haired boy on the sliding board slammed backwards into a reclining position. Surprise then fear rippled on his face as gravity pulled him to earth. He clawed at his throat as if it were his coat’s collar, not the bullet in his chest, cutting off his air.
“Okay, run it again,” she said. This time she focused on the fence. “Stop.” The barrel of a rifle appeared through the chain link, but that was all. The shooter was out of camera sight. “The other cameras?”
“Different angles, same story.” Dane leaned back. “The killer knew where to stand.” He typed at his keyboard. Another scene appeared on the screen. He zoomed in on the rifle barrel. “All I could get was a hand and part of a gray jacket sleeve.”
“Do you think the perp hacked into the learning home’s security cameras?”
“Probably. It’s easy enough to do.”
“So we’re looking at premeditative.”
“Okay, go back two weeks and watch the tapes. See if you spot anyone lurking around, checking the place out,” Alex said.
Later, when she conferenced with Dane again, he showed her a scene with two kids huddled at the fence, making furtive glances toward the building. Two arguing students distracted the teacher on duty. Money, pushed though the gaps, was exchanged for white squares. The person on the other side was hidden in the blind spot. The same location as the shooter.
“Drug deal,” Alex said, feeling every one of her years pressing down on her shoulders. “How often?”
“Twice a week. Different kids but at the same place each time and with two accomplices keeping the teacher busy.”
“Brian Weaver part of that group?”
“Not in the last two weeks.”
“Go back further; see if he had any contact with the dealer.”
Dane mentioned an old guy and showed him on the tapes. She noticed the bright yellow hat on his head first, then the long multi-colored winter coat as the old man walked by the fence.
“He passes by on a regular basis,” Dane said.
“Every day unless it’s raining. Around the same time. A suspect?”
“Maybe or he could be a witness. See if you can track him down.” Alex thought for a moment. “Check police records for all local white males over sixty-five that have been picked up for vagrancy in the last year. Then cruise around the neighborhood. Let me know if you find him.”
Back at her desk, Alex’s terminal flashed with new information. The initial autopsy report had been filed. No surprises about cause of death or about the trace of the enhancement drug in the boy’s bloodstream. Alex sighed; drugs were like the thick dark hairs that have been sprouting from her chin since she turned forty. No matter how many times she zapped them, the hairs just keep growing back thicker and blacker.
Alex stayed in the office until the words began to blur on the screen and she found herself dozing in the chair. Dragging herself home, she plopped into bed without changing her clothes.
Her palmcue shrilled, waking her up.
“Detective Thomas?” Dane’s voice, formal and flat, sounded in her ear.
“Go ahead.” She stifled a yawn.
“I found him.”
“Who?” She peered around the room; weak pre-dawn light crept through the blinds.
“Old guy. Yellow hat.”
“Great. Where?” The address flashed on her palmcue. “Stay on him. I’ll catch up with you.”
She rounded up a police sketch artist just in case they got lucky, and the two women found Dane sitting in his car. Four cups of cold coffee were lined up on his dashboard. He had pulled an all-nighter. Dane pointed across the street to a diner. A yellow hat could be seen through the window.
“Status?” Alex asked Dane.
“His name is Robert Morris. Age sixty-eight, lives in a condemned building on Park Street. Been picked up for vagrancy six times in the last four years.”
“Good job. Now go home and get some rest,” Alex said.
Dane pressed his lips together in a half scowl.
“If you walk into the diner, you might intimidate him, make him reluctant to talk.”
Dane paused for a moment. “Right,” he said and drove off.
Alex watched him go. He might not say much, but Dane had found their man in record time. Not bad for a rookie.
Alex and the sketch artist crossed to the diner and went inside. The rich smells of coffee and bacon greeted them. Pausing at the old man’s table, Alex waited until he looked up at her.
“Mr. Morris?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“I’m Detective Thomas and this is my associate, Officer Kurtz.” They flashed their badges.
“I’m a paying customer. I’m not loitering,” he said defensively, glancing around the room.
“I just want to ask some questions. Can I buy you another coffee?” Alex asked while she and Officer Kurtz sat across from him.
“How about breakfast?” He smiled, revealing yellow teeth.
After he ordered the largest platter the diner offered, Alex switched her palmcue on and began her questions. “Mr. Morris, you were seen at the Queen Street Learning Home yesterday.”
“I pass by every day on my morning rounds. Nothing criminal in that.”
“No, sir. But are you aware of what happened yesterday?”
The old man’s eyes welled with tears. “A tragedy. That poor boy. After all these years, why can’t we find a way to protect our children? That boy was a pawn, no help for that, but all children should be exempt from the horrors of life.”
“What do you mean by pawn?”
The old man looked confused for a moment. “The playground hierarchy is like a game of chess. He was the first casualty.”
Alex paused. The man was well spoken. Not your typical vagrant. But age was brutal on the mind. She believed he might not be thinking with all his chess pieces, so she went back to her original line of questioning. “Mr. Morris, did you see what happened at the learning home?”
Breakfast arrived and he dug into his plate for a full five minutes before stopping to take a sip of coffee.
“Could you tell me what you saw, sir.”
Between bites, he said, “I was around the corner when I heard a loud crack. Curious, I went to see what caused it. A boy brushed past me. He almost knocked me over in his haste.” He took another sip and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “When I saw that boy lying on the ground in the playground, I figured out what had just happened. So I took off.”
“Why didn’t you contact the police?” Alex asked.
“I don’t want trouble. Either from the police or that boy in the gray jacket.”
Alex’s heartbeat paused for a moment. The videotape had shown part of a gray sleeve near the rifle. It could be the killer.
“Could you describe the boy?” she asked.
His blood-shot eyes lost focus and roamed the diner. Sadness pulled at his cheeks, deepening the lines around his mouth. “I’ll never forget that face. It’s crystal clear in my mind. As if it were yesterday.”
“It was yesterday, sir.”
“Oh yeah, so it was.” He slurped his coffee.
Officer Kurtz pulled out her computerized sketchbook and began drawing. After a half-hour of fine-tuning, Mr. Morris finally agreed that the face was accurate. Kurtz showed the picture to Alex. A blond-haired boy around fourteen stared back at her. There was something familiar about his facial features, but she couldn’t place him.
“Send it through the computer. Let’s see if he has a record,” Alex said.
“Do you want a local search or a national?” Kurtz asked.
“Local to start. If nothing comes up, we’ll widen the area.”
When Alex went back to the office that afternoon, the computer still hadn’t come up with a match. In desperation, Alex had Kurtz do a national search. While she worked at her terminal, the Chief rapped on her screen with his fist. She jumped.
“God damn computers. Shouldn’t you be out interrogating people, doing legwork, making phone calls?” he asked.
“I had an interesting conversation with an elderly gentleman this morning,” she said. “And, if you keep resisting technology, you’ll end up just like him when you retire. Which should have been –- what? –- ten, fifteen years ago?”
“You respect your elders or you’ll be bleating in front of the cameras for the whole world to see,” he said. “Now quit sassing and start detecting. I have another God damn public roasting in two hours. Did you find my shooter yet?”
“No.” Alex filled him in what had happened so far.
Later, when she was updating Dane on the status of the case, her computer beeped at her. It had found a match. She accessed the file and put it on her screen.
This time a mug shot of Morris’ boy glared out at them. It took a while for all the information to sink in. She rubbed her eyes to make sure they hadn’t begun to blur again.
“Is that the correct date?” Dane asked. “I think the old guy’s gone mental.”
The boy Morris described had been arrested on June 7, 2007, twenty-nine years ago, in St. Louis, Missouri. Something about that date triggered a memory. She had been twelve years old at the time, and anticipating the last day of school.
She scanned the file. On a hunch, she ran the aging program on the boy’s picture. He aged twenty-nine years in front of their eyes.
Dane grunted with surprise. They recognized the man.
“So you were right about the father, he had a prior conviction for murder.” The Chief said when Alex informed him of the new developments. “But we still don’t know who the killer is. Is this another God damn drug related death?”
“No. It’s not.” She explained the details.
“God damn!” The Chief slammed his hand on the desk, a wide smile stretched across his face. “Pick your new partner, Alex. Who’s it going to be?”
Surprised by his quickness, she thought for a moment. “Actually, I’ll stick with Dane. I’ve a feeling once I drill through his thick skin, I’ll find gold.”
Dane hovered by the Chief’s door when Alex came out. She smiled at him. He stared at her for a breath, then a slow answering grin spread across his lips.
“Can we make an arrest?” he asked.
“All set. You drive.” She tossed him the keys.
He snatched them out of the air in one fluid motion. “Right.”
The knocking on the door would not stop. Mitchell Weaver peered through the peephole. His eyes throbbed and ached from tears and exhaustion. An elderly man with a bright yellow hat stood on his doorstep. Thank goodness it wasn’t a member of the press, he thought; they’d been hounding him for the last two days. The old man held up a white envelope with Mitchell Weaver’s name on it. Curious, Mitchell opened the door.
“Special delivery, sir.” The man handed Mitchell the envelope. “Have a good day, sir.” He tipped his yellow hat and walked back down the driveway toward the sidewalk.
Mitchell watched him go, thinking that the man put a new spin on the term ‘delivery boy.’ At the end of the street, the old man took off his yellow hat and bright, multi-colored coat and stuffed them into the trash can. Underneath he wore a sedate gray overcoat. Crazy old guy, Mitchell thought as the man disappeared around the corner.
Remembering the letter in his hands, Mitchell tore the envelope and opened the note. It read:
Mr. Weaver: You killed my child on June 7, 2007, and I've just killed yours. Now you know how it feels to lose a son. Welcome to my misery.