Authors: John Gilstrap
The Muffled Whump Of A Distant Mortar Marked The Beginning Of The main event. Thousands of eyes tracked the skyrocket as it corkscrewed hundreds of feet into the air and disappeared into the night before erupting into a shower of red and gold glitter. An instant later, the concussion bursts detonated. People seated up front felt the noise in their chests, and screamed their approval.
Warren Michaels smiled in the glare of the display. Today marked the thirty-seventh year in a row that he'd done the same thing on the same day of summer. Traditions were important in raising a happy family, he thought. Stretched out on the hood of his cruiser with his wife tucked next to him and his daughters perched above on the lightbar, he felt true contentment for the first time in a long while.
"So, ladies, have you all had fun today?" Warren asked. "Yep!"
Monique only groaned, making Warren laugh. His wife hated heat, bugs and loud noises. That she endured this ritual year after year only proved that she loved him.
"I think Brian would've really had fun today," Kathleen announced out of nowhere.
Monique squeezed Warren's hand and agreed. "I think so, too, sweetheart."
Warren drew his wife closer, and without a word, she responded with a gentle pat on his thigh.
The Michaels family had been on the go since nine that morning, when the celebration had begun with a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the town hall, followed at ten by a huge parade.
Spanning three hours, and stretching nearly as many miles, the parade sponsored by Warren's hometown of Brookfield, Virginia, had grown dramatically over the years, robbing spectators from the nearby Washington, D. C. counterpart. People didn't mind sacrificing a little glitz, it seemed, in favor of down-home patriotism. The spectacle featured fire departments from three states, along with no fewer than eight high school bands.
On the heels of the parade came Old-Fashioned Fireman's Day. The competition among the fire companies was fierce, testing their skills in driving, hose handling, strength, and even aim. Younger spectators lived for the water target competition. The goal of the event was to knock down three targets with a water stream, a task that looked much easier than it really was. Each team's aim was a little wild at first, drenching gleeful kids (and their parents) with hundreds of gallons of high-pressure water.
The carnival was next, running concurrently with the City-Wide Cook-Out. Even as the Tilt-a-Whirl set undigested lunches in motion, hundreds of barbecue grills were fired up in the baseball field. Families, friends and strangers all mingled together in a patriotic cooking frenzy. At any given moment, parents had no idea where their children were, but it didn't matter. Bad things just didn't happen in Brookfield.
Only a dozen or so rockets into the display, Warren's pager vibrated in the pocket of his tennis shorts. Annoyed by the interruption, he brought the two-inch box-his leash, he called it-in front of his face where he could see it. The green luminescent display showed his office number, followed by "9-1-1," indicating that it was urgent.
"Oh, shit," he grumbled, pulling his arm from around his wife. "What's the matter?"
"I don't know yet. I just got paged."
"Oh, no," Monique moaned, mostly out of sympathy for him. "Not tonight:'
Warren swung his legs over the fender and slid to the ground, pausing to nod his approval of the latest starburst. "For Jed to call me during the fireworks, it can't be good."
Warren scooted quickly into the front seat, conscious of nearby spectators and the glare of the interior light. He removed his cellular phone from its charger on the cruiser's center console, flipped it open, and punched a speed-dial button.
A harsh female voice answered on the third ring, "Braddock County Police. Is this an emergency?"
"Hi, Janice, it's Michaels. What's up?"
"Oh, Lieutenant," the call-taker gasped, "thank God you called. There's been a murder down at the JDC. Sergeant Hackner said to get you down there right away."
Warren swiveled his body and craned his neck to get a look at the latest skyrocket. "Look, I'm not on duty tonight. Isn't there someone else who can handle this?"
"I don't know, sir. Sergeant Hackner was very specific. He said he wanted you."
Warren sighed deeply. What the hell, he thought, the mood had been broken anyway. With his curiosity piqued, he wouldn't be able to enjoy the rest of the fireworks, even if he stayed.
"All right, Janice, but if Jed calls back in, you tell him that his lieutenant is not pleased. Also, you're going to have to send somebody to pick me up. My cruiser is completely blocked into Brookfield Park for the fireworks."
Using a county vehicle-even a take-home-for personal outings was a clear violation of procedure, for which there would be no repercussions. As it was, Warren grumped that he had to drive a cruiser at all. In neighboring jurisdictions, his position as the number-one guy in the detective division and number three in the department would have qualified him for an unmarked take-home without restriction. Braddock County's bean-counters had their own priorities, though, and ultimately, Warren had decided not to push the issue.
"Yes, sir," Janice acknowledged. "Where do you want to get picked up?"
Warren sighed again. Too many decisions on a night when he wanted to relax. "Get me at the corner of Braddock and Horner. It'll be a few minutes, though. I'm going to have to walk through this crowd to get there."
"Okay, sir, I'll tell them to wait on you," she said, as if there were really an option. "Do you want me to mark your cruiser out of service?" Obviously, Janice understood that Monique was going to have to drive the vehicle home; another blatant violation of procedure.
"Yeah," Warren grunted, "go ahead and do it."
He clapped the phone closed and slid out of the car to break the news to the family.
It had been years since Warren had last entered the Juvenile Detention Center. Such a depressing place.
From the outside, the JDC-Warren still thought of it as a reform school-bore the earth tones that were the architectural signature of the early eighties. Trees and flowers adorned manicured gardens; there were no fences or barbed wire. The place easily could have been a medical building, or even a small elementary school. The last thing it looked like was a warehouse for violent children.
The interior, however, screamed institution. Clearly, there had been a time when the cinder block had been freshly painted and modern, but now the once-white walls were yellowed from cigarette smoke, age and abuse. A bold navy blue racing stripe eighteen inches wide ran around the interior perimeter, jutting up and down at odd angles. Intended to inject architectural excitement, the stripe now served as a continuous picture frame for all manner of graffiti. The tile floors were clean enough, waxed and buffed on a regular basis by some of the more trustworthy residents, but in the corners where the walls joined the floors, years' worth of dirt had accumulated, unnoticed.
As he passed through the lobby, Michaels clipped his gold badge to the waistband of his shorts. But for his rank, he would have felt self-conscious of his casual dress. As it was, his Izod shirt with tennis shorts and shoes (no socks) communicated to his subordinates a certain full-time dedication to the job. He was escorted by two uniformed officers through the inner security door under the watchful eyes of Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan. The caption along the bottom of the poster read, "There's no such thing as a bad boy."
Down a short hallway and to the right, Michaels encountered a knot of uniformed men and women, all busily moving about, but few with any apparent purpose. Especially useless, it seemed, were the personnel bearing the uniform of the Juvenile Detention Center. Prison guards, like mall security personnel, liked to think of themselves as part of the law-enforcement community, and prized their association with real police officers. Warren thought of them as groupies. Though he could see no role for them in a criminal investigation, he recognized that they had to stick around to look after the remaining residents, who he assumed were locked behind the rows of closed wooden doors visible beyond the thick windows of the security station.
The focus of everyone's attention was in and around a small doorway bearing the label Crisis Unit. He couldn't see inside the room itself, but the flash of camera strobes gave it away as the crime scene.
"Excuse me," Michaels said, gently touching the shoulder of a uniformed officer from behind.
The initial annoyance in the young officer's eyes instantly disappeared as he recognized the man making the request. "Lieutenant Michaels coming through!" the officer announced to the others, causing the crowd to part.
Michaels smiled kindly to the officer, noting the name emblazoned on his silver name tag. "Thanks, Officer Borsuch."
"You're welcome, sir." Michaels was the only white-shirt in the department who treated patrolmen as real people.
The scene was gruesome. A white male, maybe thirty and dressed in the uniform of a JDC guard, lay sprawled on the floor of the tiny room, surrounded by a pool of coagulating blood that encircled his body like a crimson aura. An upended cot had been tossed into the corner, its mattress, such as it was, still in place relative to the frame. Every surface had been splashed with gore; drips, smears and spatters extending high onto the walls. A child-size bloody footprint pointed out the door-just a partial, actually, a ball and five toes. Michaels's mind worked to re-create the enormous struggle that had gone on in here.
As Warren surveyed the scene, a cheerful and familiar voice boomed out of the din.
"Nice outfit there, Lieutenant," Jed Hackner said from behind, clapping his boss on the shoulder. Hackner and Michaels had been classmates through the academy, and back as far as junior high school. That one outranked the other spoke only of the limited availability of lieutenant slots, not of any lack of ability. Each man thought of the other as his closest friend.
"Yeah, well, imagine me thinking that just because I had the day off, I wouldn't have to work. You certainly are your usual dapper self this evening." Hackner had a reputation as the department's clotheshorse, preferring the latest styles from Gentleman's Quarterly over the cliched rumpled look of most detectives.
"Pretty disgusting scene, huh?" Hackner said, noting Michaels's body language.
"What the hell happened in here?"
Hackner pulled a notebook from his inside jacket pocket. Always a notebook, Michaels thought with amusement. Not a single note more than one hour old, yet Jed still needed to read his findings.
"From what we've put together so far, this is Richard W. Harris, age twenty-eight. He's been employed here for the past four and a half years as a child care supervisor."
"Is that the same as a guard?" Michaels interrupted.
"Yes," Hackner acknowledged with a smile. "But only to politically incorrect old people." At thirty-seven, Michaels was eight months Hackner's senior. Jed continued from his notes: "At seven o'clock, Mr. Harris had some kind of an altercation with one of the residents, a Nathan Bailey, and assigned the kid here to the Crisis Unit."
"And is a Crisis Unit something like solitary confinement?" Michaels interrupted again.
Hackner smiled broadly. "Yes, it is. Very similar indeed. From that point on, all we have is conjecture. But the bottom line is, we believe that Nathan Bailey killed Ricky Harris and then escaped. Bailey is on the loose as we speak. The coroner hasn't been here yet, but my examination of the body shows at least five stab wounds to the abdomen and chest."
"Care to conjecture a motive?"
Hackner shrugged. "My guess is he wanted to get the hell out of this place. Wouldn't you?"
Michaels frowned. "I don't know that I'd kill for it. Do we have a murder weapon?"
"Sure do. It's still stuck in the body. Good eye, Lieutenant."
The brown wooden handle of a Buck knife protruded from the decedent's chest, just below his embroidered name. From Warren's angle to the body, the weapon was partially concealed. "Bite me," he growled.
Warren pointed to the security camera in the upper left rear corner of the room. "Have you checked the tape?" he asked. "Maybe we have a movie of this whole thing."
"Checked it, and no, we don't. The video system is down." Of course it is. Where did the knife come from?"
"How long has he been dead?"
"Can't tell for sure. My guess is about two hours."
Michaels's eyes bored into Hackner. "Two hours! Jesus, how long did they sit on the body before they called us?"
"Apparently they called right away. Seems they only work one person at night. Harris was found by his relief when he came in at nine. It's nine-forty now."
"Where did all these people come from, if they only work one to a shift?" Michaels couldn't see across the room through all the spectators.
"I guess word travels fast. Everybody wants to be where the action is."
Michaels planted his fists on his hips and shook his head in disbelief. "So that means the kid has a two-hour head start on us, right?"