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I shot down Interstate 35, veered off downtown and headed west along Sixth Street. It was quiet for the downtown barhopping street, this being a Tuesday, and the lights and siren helped. I also had the FM radio blaring and the window open, hoping to clear my head. I'd had two margaritas at the restaurant—Rachel only knew about one owing to a quick deal I worked with the hostess while Rachel was in the ladies' room, before the Tierneys arrived—and the second margarita was a double. Reformed party girl Rachel got nervous watching me have more than one drink.

I flipped channels. "...Persian Gulf. Beginning at three o'clock this morning, an air assault on the city of Baghdad..." Flip. Singing, "...I'm all strung out on heroin, on the ou-outskirts of town." Off.

I turned up West Lynn, looped left around the school and turned right up tiny Confederate Avenue to see five patrol cars, two ambulances and a fire truck, the FD always the first on the scene. I parked as close as I could, adding to the spectacle, and waded through the crowd of uniforms and onlookers, my badge held high.

I said, "Homicide." Two clusters of emergency medical techs didn't blink. The five patrols spun around, four white men and one black. I said, "Talk to me."

One patrol said, "The neighbors heard shots—"

"One shot," another one said.

"Whatever, and this woman screaming bloody murder. They called 911. No one was in a rush to get outside till they were sure she was alone." I stepped into the house.

In the far corner of the front room, four white-shirted EMTs clustered around a petite black woman who was sitting upright, sobbing. They'd wrapped her in a blanket. Her skin was damp, and she was shaking. Periodically, she'd stop crying and let out a gut-wrenching scream that stopped everyone dead. A second EMT cluster kneeled on the rug around what had to be a small body.

The black patrolman said, "The woman, sir. It's Virginia Key."

I said, "Who?"

I peeked over the EMTs to get a look at the boy on the golden carpet. They had a tube in his throat and a drip in his ann, EKG beeping and the knock-and-wheeze of a breathing machine. They pumped and pounded and shocked him, watched his heart and his brain function on mobile screens. I whispered to a patrol, "How long have they been at this?"

"Since before we got here."

Virginia Key screamed out what may have been "Ruby!" and tried to get up. The techs held her down in her chair, and she broke into sobs again.

I shifted close enough to get a better look at the boy's face, round and pudgy with baby fat, black features and the frightening gray-white pallor of shock and blood loss. A baby ghost.

A thousand factors hang in the balance when EMTs try to save a life. Death, coma. Lack of oxygen to the brain can cause pennanent brain damage, a living death. Maybe the bullet hit his spine. He could lose mobility, be confined to a wheelchair, lose the power to speak. His life from this random moment on could be an endless sea of suffering. Even a well-intended blood transfusion could kill him.

But scariest of all is that while we say he's "dying," while his heart and lungs and brain are pulling with everything they've got, while his crimson blood makes deepening puddles on the amber carpet, he's still 100 percent alive. He can be close to dead, near dead, but never partly dead. All that's alive in him will do anything to stay alive. And it won't give up smoothly.

Behind that cluster of technicians, under a blanket I lifted lay another body, even smaller. A baby-faced girl with a bloody bullet hole in her forehead, the very spot where she should have, just then, been getting a goodnight kiss. Whatever heroic act the EMTs pulled off with the boy, they'd still have lost one. Virginia Key sobbed.

The EMTs loaded the boy onto a stretcher, oxygen and IVs and EKGs and everything else short of a battery plugged into him. I propped the door open and stepped outside in the moonlit cold to let them pass. Another siren approached the house, a light flashing from the dashboard of the blue Chrysler of Lieutenant Miles Niederwald, my CO. I moved away from the crowd and waved. Miles's car weaved up the street, bounced up the curb and onto the lawn, making me jump aside as he ripped to a halt, tearing up grass where I'd been standing.

"What the fuck?!" I shouted. "What are you doing here? Go home."

He swung his door open and struggled to his feet. The gradual shift over the last few years, from excessive drinking to an all-liquid diet, had lost Miles maybe thirty of his extra hundred pounds, making his remaining fat hang on him like a half-empty mail sack. Burst blood vessels reddened his nose and cheeks and the rims of his eyelids, the lowers hanging open as if to catch rainwater. Sparse white hair completed the picture of a decaying, sixty-five-year-old drunk. He was forty-eight. But he'd looked out for me, covered for me at the risk of looking bad himself, in my screw-up months after my partner Joey's death. There wasn't much I wouldn't do for Miles now. "We're shifting the order," he said. "Torbett's in charge. You get the next one."


"Two-man job," he said. "You're the second man. But Torbett's in charge.

Miles looked around the front-yard crowd and eyeballed the black patrol officer, who saw Miles and nodded toward the house. A station wagon from the medical examiner's office arrived to pick up the little girl's body.

In the lit-up darkness, Torbett, the third detective on a one- detective scene, rode up the street in a somber blue Ford, driving a Sunday-straight line that put Miles's serpentine trail to shame. He pulled up to a free stretch of curb and got out, already suspicious. A blue zipper jacket and slacks took the place of the conservative suit he wore to work, twelve months a year, without fail. But this was an emergency. "What's going on?"

I looked at Miles. "I get it."


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