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by Gary Clifton

Homicide Detective Red Harper, waving a file folder, strolled over to the desk of his partner Davis McCoy. “Home invasion and firebombing overnight,” Harper said. “We worked a case involving the male vic here, last year... uh, Kevin Markham. Now he and two stepdaughters are in the Parkland Burn unit, all critical.”

McCoy, twenty-two years on the job, eight in Homicide, had played tight end in college football. He was still strong, but the job had taken a toll on him; he had just received a “two years sober” chip from AA. He looked up at Harper, carefully guarding a poker face. He sighed inwardly. If he had to interview burned children, well, he would do what he had to do.

“Markham?” McCoy asked. “Red, isn’t that the punk who claimed his wife was murdered by two guys who broke in? We knew damned well he’d beaten her brains in, but both her daughters were too traumatized at the time to give reliable information.”

Harper was nearing mandatory retirement. He had been in Homicide since forever. “Hell, yeah, I remember the mope. Stepdaughters still in his custody? I thought we convinced Child Protective Services to take those kids out of that place.”

“Red” Harper had gotten his nickname for the inch-wide rim of bright red hair circling his bald head above his ears. Like McCoy, he, too, had a kind of “game face.” It included rolling an unlit cigar stub in a corner of his mouth. Local criminals recognized that cigar on sight, and it sent them a message they knew well: “Do not mess with Red Harper.”

McCoy said, “Three priors for child molestation, as I recall. Those two girls in the same house with that mope is somebody’s major screw-up.”

* * *

The two veterans drove out to Parkland and found a horror chamber. The smell of death smothered the Burn Unit air. Harper and McCoy bent over Sarah, her frail, horribly burned naked body coated with a menthol salve atop a rubber mattress. Both cops, journeymen in a hard trade, struggled to keep their stomachs.

“Maggie? Where’s Maggie?” she whispered hoarsely upward through her oxygen mask. Her breath snatched at air in desperate gasps. She was twelve; Maggie, eleven.

Harper had three granddaughters about the same ages.

Maggie had died an hour before, according to the nurse in charge. Neither could muster the resolve to tell Sarah.

“The doctor will tell us about Maggie soon, baby,” McCoy said, disgusted with himself at the verge of tears. Her appearance resembled a baked haddock he’d seen in a restaurant. She couldn’t live another hour.

The nurse stepped in and motioned both over. “Kevin Markham just expired.”

Harper and McCoy turned back to Sarah. “Did your stepfather... uh... touch the two of you, Sarah... or...?”

The horribly mutilated little face dissolved in tears. She blurted, “Mostly Maggie.”

Both men were experts in a business that knew no end to surprises. They saw it instantly: a desperate attempt at rescue gone terribly wrong. Sarah had tried to stop the monster and miscalculated the effect of poured gasoline.

“Sarah,” McCoy managed, “you poured gasoline around the apartment, didn’t you? You thought you could wake Maggie and get her out before the fire reached her?”

Her rasping gulps for breath exploded in a guttural, gurgling finality. The nurse hurried over. The burned child had stopped breathing

“Code blue,” she said, surprisingly calm.

“Gotta get out, fellas.” She gestured. “Have a cup of coffee there in the nurses’ station and hang around. You’re gonna want some copies of our paperwork.”

* * *

Harper poured McCoy a cup of hot steaming liquid. “Markham had a hard time with ‘unknown intruders’. Sounds like he ran out of luck. A case here of a scumbag getting what he deserved. Little Sarah just didn’t know how to do it.” Harper turned away, embarrassed at his show of emotion.

McCoy sipped his coffee. “We thinkin’ we should smear the kid, here, Red? Markham is in hell. What could be gained?”

“Nothing. How about ‘unidentified intruder, no suspects’? Probably the same guy who murdered the kids’ mama.”

McCoy nodded and looked away. “Damn sure it was the same guy,” he echoed. “Markham made that bed. Now... You write it up. I’ll sign it.”

Harper pulled a cigar stub from his pocket and jammed it into a corner of his mouth. “I don’t think we should bother the lieutenant with it.”

“No, he’s got plenty on his plate already. You really think he wants to know?”

Harper rolled his cigar, his eyes narrow slits of anger. “McCoy, it wasn’t enough, but it’s was the best the kid could do. You wanna raise hell with CPS?”

“No, they have a full case load. I think the less said...”

Harper nodded, blinking away tears. McCoy turned back to the coffee pot, pretending not to notice.

Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton

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