Okay, Chapter 1 apparently wasn’t enough to jog anyone’s memory. Here’s Chapter 2. Maybe it will help.
McCallister’s cell phone sounded with the opening of the elevator door on the ground floor. Upon answering it, she learned that someone found the body of the teenager who had allegedly jumped to his death from Granger Bridge three days prior.
This was the third suicide in Granton in the past two weeks. All of them were adolescent boys, all from the same school, and all choosing the very same spot on the very same bridge to end it all. With young people, suicides were often like dominoes, and the community had procedures in place to keep those dominoes from falling. This time, they had not been so lucky. The professionals called them “suicide clusters,” and she hated the term. Stars clustered—flowers, diamonds, even peanuts. In her mind, it sounded too quaint, as though proximity was the gist of it, not cause and effect, not pain compounding pain.
She was a member of the Crisis Intervention Team that went into schools after such an occurrence. Her role was not seen as the supportive ones provided by the mental health workers. They were the nouns; she was the verb. She forced a dose of reality into minds that had yet to fully develop foresight. She carefully told the tales of cutting a noose, of trying to identify a young man’s face when half his head hung in little bits on the wallpaper, of telling parents the devastating news that the life they brought into the world had left. Now, fishing teenage bodies out of the river would one day land in the index of children’s stories that should never be told.
The first boy, Erik Scott, had been the backbone of a group of seeming outcasts. They were sophomores, into comic books and video games, and not one of them had ever been in trouble. Scott had been respected by his friends, and when he plunged over a hundred feet to the river, there occurred a lethal mix of pain and hero-worship. The second boy, Bradley Dake, followed within a week, and now, another one waited on the shore for his own body bag.
She sped to Riverine Park, juggling sadness and anger. Death was bad enough, but when it manifested itself in children, it took abhorrent to another level. Her anger came from a sense of failure, that the extra patrols the department ordered on Granger Bridge had not stopped this one. The press would have a field day.
She pulled her car through the array of squads and parked next to the coroner’s van. For a long moment, she simply sat there, absorbing everything and every face she could. She knew the coroner’s determination of drowning would come about through a process of elimination. Was he alive when he hit the water? Did he hit the water intentionally? Until those questions had answers, it was a crime scene.
She disembarked and headed for the uniformed group on the river’s shore.
“Is it him?” she asked.
“Fits the description, Detective,” an officer informed her.
She had hoped the boy had simply run away, leaving some of his belongings and a note on the bridge just for the sake of drama or the instillation of worry. She looked to his battered, discolored face, and she scarcely recognized him from the photos displayed on his parents’ wall. His clothes matched the portrait his mother had tearfully painted of the last time she had seen him.
Loathsomely satisfied, she turned her gaze to the medical examiner and asked, “Anything out of the ordinary, Hastings?”
Dr. Peter Hastings shook his head. “Nothing I wouldn’t expect. He’s banged up where he ought to be, no where he really shouldn’t be. Lividity is as expected. Rigors would match the window of time,” he answered. “I’ll need to run some tests, of course.”
“All right, Hastings. Do your thing,” she said, and then she looked to Officers Jansen and Jessop. “We still need everything backed up. Get a statement from the woman who found him, and I want the name of everyone who came for the sideshow. Treat it like a crime scene until we know otherwise. I’m going to head to his parents’ house before they find out on their own.”
She made a beeline for her car, but in a shrill second, her mission took an abrupt detour.
“Is it him? Is it him?” the boy’s mother shrieked as she pushed her way through the throng of onlookers and members of the press. “Is it Kevin?”
McCallister raced to stop her from nearing the shore. As gently and yet as forcefully as she could, she seized the woman’s arm, bringing her to a jerking halt. “It’s him, Mrs. Conner. I’m very sorry, but it’s your son.”
If the heart made a sound when it broke, McCallister heard it.
She led her by the arm to her car. Figuring she needed some time to compose herself away from the gawking crowd, she opened the back door and motioned for her to sit down.
With a flicking wrist, she summoned an officer to stand near the car, and then with angry strides, she approached the line of reporters.
“All right, who was the son-of-a— Who just had to release the information before the mother found out?” she railed. Glaring, she focused on each individual. “Are you happy you informed the world first? Did that little scoop make you feel good? Like God? A goddamn half an hour! You couldn’t wait a goddamn half an hour!”
“Detective, can you verify—”
“Verify? Verify? Can I verify that I’m pissed as hell and won’t answer one of your goddamn questions? Consider it verified!”
“We have a right to know,” one of them dared.
“So did the people who brought him into this world!” Angrily, she spat on the ground, turned around in the dead silence, and returned to her car.
She knelt in front of the woman. “Where’s your husband, Mrs. Conner? Someone needs to tell him before he finds out like you did. Do you want—”
“Brian! Oh my God!” the woman shouted. “Brian—his brother’s at school! I sent him to school! I thought if we acted normal—”
“I’ll get you to his school. Get in.”
Mrs. Conner swung her legs into the vehicle, and McCallister slammed the door before hightailing it to the driver’s door. As she started the engine, she asked which school Brian went to and then mentally mapped the most efficient route.
She had just shoved the car into drive when Mrs. Conner shrieked, “My husband!” and frantically disembarked. She watched her race to him as he tried to push his way through the growing crowd. When he saw her, he shoved a man out of his way, scooted under the police tape, and ran to her. They embraced for a long moment, and it was obvious he already knew his son had been found.
Just as they pulled apart, McCallister exited her vehicle and shouted, “Mr. Conner, are you okay to drive to Brian’s school?”
When he acknowledged that he was, she instructed him to follow her, that she would get them to his school as quickly as possible. Maybe one of them—the youngest one, the most vulnerable one—might receive the horrible news in the kindest way possible.
With her dashboard lights flashing, she escorted them to Columbus Middle School in five minutes that somehow seemed endless. She watched them in the rearview mirror, and again, she recognized that it had been easier to look at the dead boy than his hurting parents.
At the driveway entrance, she killed her lights and then double parked by the main doors. Mr. Conner pulled behind her, and the three of them wasted no time getting to the school office. There, Mr. Conner asked that his son be summoned.
While they waited, the Conners spoke with the principal, and McCallister headed into the hall where she feigned interest in a large bulletin board. She felt out of place. She even knew she should have just left when she got them there safely, but it was all she could think to do. The department had failed their son. She had failed their son. It was the least—and the most—she could do for them.
Minutes later, a young boy made his way down the corridor. She attempted to appear busy, but she could not help but try to see him peripherally. He appeared much younger than she expected, and she figured him to be a 7th grader. She suspected he knew what he was about to walk into. His face looked pained, and he seemed to make a concerted effort to keep from running. The soles of his shoes periodically squealed.
He opened the office door, but before he had a chance to enter, his parents came out.
“Hello, son,” Mr. Conner said as he surveyed the hallway to make sure they were alone.
“They found Kevin, honey,” Mrs. Conner told him. “He’s gone, Brian. Kevin’s dead.” Then she leaned and pulled him close, one arm across his back, one cradling his head.
Mr. Conner scanned again and crossed his arms over his chest. He stood there for a moment, as though a bodyguard protecting what he most valued.
She returned her attention to the bulletin board to give them some privacy.
A few moments later, she noticed Mr. Conner standing right beside her.
“Detective, thank you for getting us here so quickly.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied despite wanting to refute his need for gratitude. “The coroner will make sure everything is as it seems. He’ll contact you when he’s able to let you have your son’s body for burial.” When he nodded, she said, “I’m very sorry you lost your son, sir. If there’s anything I can do, please call me.”
Again, he nodded.
She glanced across the hall, and for brief time, she simply watched a heartbroken mother trying to console her remaining son. The boy’s eyes were glazed over. His expression proved blank. She knew that for the moment, shock had befriended him in a way that would keep the pain at bay until he was ready. In her heart, she wished him strength—and a resolve never to do what his brother had done.
She placed a gentle, sympathetic hand to Mr. Conner’s shoulder, and then she took leave.
Returning to the park took much longer without the use of lights, and it gave her the time she needed to think. Her job was almost done: all but paperwork and simply waiting for Hastings to eliminate possibilities other than suicide. Yet, the idleness of it carried far more weight than an intense investigation. There had to be something she could do, something more the department could do to make sure this was the last in the series.
She came to a stop in the park, and after noting the absence of the coroner’s van and the media, she grabbed her cell phone and dialed the number of the Crisis Intervention Team’s head. Marilyn Farrow had already received word of the boy’s death and put a plan in action. Counselors were heading to Granton High School East to make themselves available as classmates heard the news. She told her there would be nothing formal done this time, and McCallister dejectedly understood that to mean her services were unneeded.
Twenty minutes later, she knocked on Captain Greeley’s door and peeked inside his office. He was on the phone but gestured for her to enter. She walked to his window and looked out. He repeated “yes, sir” a dozen times, and she didn’t need to be much of a detective to figure out that he was talking to Chief Morton. Experience, however, told her that Morton was probably more concerned with damage control than anything else.
When Greeley hung up, he inquired, “Is everything taken care of at the park?”
She filled him in, and then he asked her whether she had spoken to the press. She decided to forego telling him about her rant and said, “I don’t see any need to speak with them about this. I think it should come from the Coroner’s Office when the autopsy is done.”
“I agree, and so does Chief Morton. We also think you should attend when Dr. Hastings makes the determination official. See if you can stop them from turning this into an issue.”
“Fine,” she said, “but that’s two, three days from now. What are we doing in the meantime? Can we get more patrols?”
He shook his head. “The chief says no; it’s not within the budget. But I’ll meet with the shift commanders and better coordinate what we do have. I’ll also give Sheriff Ackers a call. Maybe he’ll lend us an unofficial hand.”
Frustrated, she looked back out the window and literally bit her tongue.
Greeley said, “I know you’re not happy with this, Laura. I’m not either, but he does have a point. There are five bridges in this city. If we tie our patrols to one bridge, they’ll simply use another if they really want to jump. Plus, we still have a whole city that needs looking after. I’ll figure out a way to zigzag the patrols on all the bridges.”
* * * * *
Wednesday found her and Hastings walking out of the Coroner’s Office for a press conference on the front step. What she saw reminded her more of a group waiting for a lottery draw rather than the official announcement of a death.
When the group quieted down, Hastings said, “The autopsy of Kevin Joseph Conner, the young man found in the river on Monday, has been completed. It is this office’s determination that he died from drowning. His body has been released to his parents.”
One of the reporters asked, “So, it’s a suicide? Another suicide.”
“Yes,” he answered very matter-of-factly. “There is no evidence to support any other conclusion.”
Before another question could be posed, McCallister loudly cleared her throat. “That’s all we have to offer, but I’d like a moment off the record.” She waited for a camera to be turned off and notebooks to be closed. Then she said, “Other countries have guidelines, restrictions even, about how suicides are to be reported by the media. Here, we trust our news outlets to do the right thing. The Coroner’s Office and the Granton Police Department ask that you report just the fact of his death, the cause, if you must, but that you not turn it into anything more than that. Glorifying it, condemning it, giving it any attention beyond acknowledgment may have unintended consequences.”
A moment of silence ensued, and she could nearly hear the cogs of their reporter brains whirring with things she did not want to deal with. Yet, she had little choice; Greeley handed her the task, and it was obvious he was under orders to do so, to hand it off to a subordinate, to shield the almighty decision-makers. To her, it was as though they wholeheartedly sanctioned the shooting of the messenger.
One of them raised his hand. “What is the police department doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
“We have a plan in place,” she answered. “We’re doing all we can do. We’ll revise and—”
“Obviously, that plan hasn’t been working,” another interrupted. He worked for the Tribune, which, she knew, could turn leap year into a scathing expose on Corporate America’s flagrant disregard of overtime regulations.
“Please don’t turn this into an issue,” she said. “If you want to come after us, go right ahead. Scrutiny is an important part of the system. Accountability is, too. But please do not attach it to these youths’ deaths. Find another route. And, hold yourselves and each other accountable, too, for ethical reporting. Bottom line is that no matter our job title, we’re all members of this community, and we’re all responsible for doing the right thing.”
“Isn’t that passing the buck? Public safety, patrolling our streets, keeping our kids safe is your job. How could three kids walk onto a bridge in the heart of this city and jump to their deaths without anyone noticing? Where were the patrols? Were there patrols?”
Those were legitimate questions, ones she had been asking herself; yet, the tone of the questions angered her. It insinuated things that were far from the truth. She took a deep breath. “If you think for one moment that anyone in the department cares nothing about our young people dying, you’re very sorely mistaken. If you have ideas about something we should be doing that we’re not doing, by all means, give Chief Morton’s office a call.”
“That’s all we have. We’ll do our jobs. You do yours. Report the boy’s death in a factual manner only.” She flapped a stack of papers she held. “We’d appreciate it if you’d find a way—without connecting it to the recent deaths—to get this information in the paper.” She handed the stack to a young woman in the front row as she explained, “You’ll find contact information for the Suicide Hotline and the Crisis Intervention Center. Thank you.”
As the group busied themselves with paper-passing, she and Hastings slipped back into the building.
Just as the door closed, he said, “Laura, I think you riled them more than you calmed them.”
She carefully glanced through the door’s narrow window. “I think there are a couple that wouldn’t be calmed no matter what we did, especially that jerk Benton from the Tribune,” she said. “Most of them will do the right thing. If we’re lucky, the ones who won’t will be out there looking for dirt on us and will end up inadvertently monitoring the bridges. That’s not a bad thing. Except Benton would probably stop to take pictures before he’d lift a finger to stop anyone from jumping.”
“I take it you don’t like this Benton fellow.” He went on tiptoes so he could see over her head and out the window. “Which one is he?”
“The pasty one in the maroon windbreaker.”
“Eeew,” he said when he caught a glimpse. He studied him before he said, “I kind of know the managing editor at the Tribune. Do you want me to see if she perhaps knows how to conjure up this guy’s decency?”
“You’re assuming he has any.”
“He got your goat with the big piece he did on the letters Faraday wrote to you. I thought you didn’t read newspapers.”
“I don’t,” she said. “And his kind is precisely why I don’t.”
“What about Kate Sutter? I thought she was a close friend of yours?”
“She has decency, enough to go around.” She watched for a moment longer and then pulled a fortifying breath. “None of this matters, though, Hastings. Kevin Conner is the last one. There won’t be another.”
“Let’s hope,” he replied. “Children do not belong on my table.”
“That they don’t.” She elbowed him as she slid out from beneath him. “Stick with very old people who need the mercy of it.”
“Okay, I will,” he said with a boastful yet humble smile. “And in my spare time, I’ll research some cures so even old people won’t need mercy.”
“There you go,” she chided. When he spun to face her, she playfully punched his arm. “It’s been a productive meeting for a change, Hastings. Now get busy with your plan to save humanity.”
She hurried down the hall, and he called after her, “And what will you be doing with all your spare time after I save the world?”
“Harassing hero coroners.”
“You do that now. How about pasty reporters?”
She gave him a thumbs-up before sneaking out a side door and making a sprint for the station.
* * * * *
On Friday afternoon, she sat in her car in the middle of Oakwood Cemetery. Under the guise of making sure the family wasn’t hounded by the media, she watched Kevin Conner’s funeral from afar. An open window allowed her to hear, but the only thing she could make out was the occasional “amen” from all who had gathered. She could see Mrs. Conner dab her eyes with a tissue. She could see Mr. Conner doing his best to comfort her, his brawny arm wrapped around her. She could see Brian, still stoic, staring blankly at the mahogany casket in front of him, his hands clasped and hanging, his blue suit too small for a growing boy.
The sights and sounds hurt her heart, and yet, she needed them, accepted them as a penance, perhaps—a penance owed by everyone in the department.
When the crowd began to disperse, she looked down and pretended to be busy with note-taking even though she uncharacteristically did not have a pen in her possession. That anomaly reminded her that things felt out of order.
Periodically, she glanced upward and tried to give each face a role in Kevin’s world: a grandmother, an uncle, maybe his T-ball coach from a time when things were much simpler. A group of teenagers caught her eye, and she figured each was a domino in the line started by Erik Scott. Were they wobbling? Would they fall? And bigger: Could they stop them?
Soon, everyone deserted the area, except for two men she assumed were tasked with the physical burial. Unlike those at the emotional burial before them, they would be able to fill a void. They would reposition the sod as though a rug hiding something indelibly wrong. They would leave the flowers, and by morning, the March air would turn them to mush.
With a mission steadfast in her mind, she seized the rose from the passenger seat, exited her car, and took swift strides to the gravesite. She placed the rose on the casket, and in her mind, she wished him peace. Then, in a way she deemed quite selfish, she asked him to help them help his friends. “Close the gate, Kevin, and keep it closed.”
She turned to leave, and a wave of hopeful sadness unexpectedly engulfed her. Squads and cars lined the road, and a procession of cops, both uniformed and off-duty, headed in her direction. They, too, came to pay respects to someone they never knew, yet someone for whom they felt overwhelmingly responsible.
Out of respect, she didn’t look at them as she passed. Sporadically, an open palm would reach toward her, and she’d clasp it in a display of solidarity and then wordlessly move on.
Bringing up the rear were Jansen and Jessop.
“Kevin Conner is the last one, Detective,” Jessop whispered.
She squeezed his arm and kept moving.
She went back to the station and found it unusually quiet and somber. Even Greeley said nothing, acknowledging her only with a nod of his head.
She did paperwork until the clock told her that the area schools were out. She left the station and stopped to spend half an hour tossing a football around with a ten-year-old boy, Johnny Wendt, the son of a murder victim. Since his father died, she kept an eye on him, but in truth, he gave her far more than she to him. He supplied her with a sense of hope, as she watched him slowly heal from immeasurable grief.
Then, she aimed for home, for Holly, with an intense need to do nothing but be close to her. Her nearness was as a salve, and at that moment in time, she felt like an open wound.