SUICIDE BY COP
By Adrian Ludens
Fluffy snow dusted the ground, the wind had taken the night off, and the temperature held at a reasonable thirty-three degrees. Leafless elm branches clawed the sky as if begging for the sun to return, but the evergreens—mostly spruce and pine—stood under the coating of snow with stoic grace, reminding me of General Washington and his men wintering at Valley Forge.
I should have been enjoying the beauty of the night, but life is not always beautiful—especially for a cop. I would rather have been out turkey hunting. Instead, I hunched behind the wheel of the cruiser. Our newest deputy, Scotty Nesbit, sat in the passenger seat. Between us the dispatch radio crackled occasionally and our coffees cooled, untouched. I had parked my cruiser a block away from the east entrance to Canton Lake Park, situated on the edge of town.
A block away from the west entrance to the park another patrol car waited. Its occupants were Deputies Greeley and Larimer, both good men.
We should have had more officers for a situation like this, but I’d thrown the two teams together quickly.
Nesbit tried to strike up a conversation. “Sheriff Fletcher, I’ve been thinking. Why did this guy kidnap that girl? Do they know each other? Was he stalking her?”
“You’re asking if he has a grudge against her family or if this is something darker.”
Nesbit shrugged. “I guess I’m just trying to find a reason.”
“Sometimes people get desperate.”
“I think he’s crazy to pull a stunt like this. This whole situation has my guts in a knot.” Nesbit said and emitted a bark of nervous laughter.
“Don’t count on how things are going to be Friday until you’ve lived through Thursday.” I said, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel to keep them from stiffening in the cold.
Nesbit frowned. “Sorry, Sheriff—I’m not following.”
“Let me tell you about the deputy you replaced. His name was Heywood Ward. Deputy Ward made a routine traffic stop one Friday night several months ago. The vehicle had crossed the center line so Ward pulled him over. The guy behind the wheel emerged from his vehicle, polite and docile. The guy had nothing on his record. Ward told me later he had intended to let the driver off with a warning. Instead, the guy stunned him with an uppercut. Before Ward’s vision cleared, the guy had stolen his sidearm right out of his holster and driven away.”
I saw Nesbit’s eyes widen in the darkness. He kept silent.
“Ward radioed for backup and gave pursuit. He caught up to the vehicle a mile or so down the road and since they were driving on a stretch of empty highway, Ward forced him into a ditch. The guy didn’t flee his vehicle, which gave Ward time to load his M4 carbine we keep in each patrol car for truly hairy situations. Ward knelt behind his open car door and shouted for the man to surrender. The footage taken from the camera mounted on the dash in Deputy Ward's cruiser offered proof of the events that transpired. The driver emerged. He shouted, ‘I’m gonna kill you with your own gun!’ He reached into his waistband, dropped to one knee and pointed at Ward.”
I glanced again at my rookie deputy. He appeared to be holding his breath. I went on. “Deputy Ward fired two shots. The guy went down hard. The paramedics who arrived pronounced him dead at the scene. Ward pulled desk duty for a while after that. He got counseling. Then he got cleared to go back out on patrol. Instead, he turned in his badge.”
Nesbit looked at me quickly. “Why?’
I shrugged and shook my head. “Told me he didn’t feel right after that night. Though the department found his actions in line with protocol, Ward never absolved himself of the guilt he felt. The guy had brandished his car keys. Ward’s Glock 22 was discovered in the ditch half way between the original stop and the scene of the shooting, right where the guy had apparently tossed it. The guy set Ward up, tricked him into firing.”
Nesbit frowned. “So what happened to the gun?”
“The deceased, we later learned, had caught his wife cheating. He’d been laid off at the cabinet factory only the week prior. Guy had no kids, few friends. Took a freefall into deep depression, I suppose. He wanted out, but couldn't do it to himself. The whole thing was a set-up; he never kept the weapon, just fooled my deputy into thinking he had. Poor Ward got suckered into performing a ‘suicide by cop.’”
Nesbit’s face betrayed a conceit that many rookies start with. “That’s horrible but… Why didn’t Ward notice that the perp really didn’t have a weapon?”
The conceit goes away eventually, like morning dew burned off by the midday sun. My job was to spread a little sunshine, so to speak.
“You’d be surprised at what happens when the spit hits the fan. You revert to your training. Weapon aimed. Center mass. Tap, tap. It’s over before you realize it was happening.” I said. “And you have to live with what happens in that instant for the rest of your life.”
Nesbit’s head had sunk back against the head rest. He licked his lips but I pressed on before he had a chance to speak.
“What I’m saying is that we don’t know what sent our kidnapper off the deep end. That’s why, though half the town will be in an old-fashioned lynching mood—or at least talkin’ like they are—our first priority is to ensure the girl’s safety. If a prison shrink can help this guy down the road, well, that’d be all right with me. Because you just never know.”
A small light appeared in my periphery and I stiffened. “Heads up; vehicle approaching.”
The illuminated and garishly-colored sign atop the car’s roof identified the driver’s intent. I found myself wishing for a job as mundane as pizza delivery. The vehicle ignored the entrance to the park. I watched until the red taillights vanished in the darkness.
“Sheriff, what if he starts shooting? I mean, we’d have to return fire.” The high, tight tone of Nesbit’s voice betrayed his nervousness, but there was excitement there too. “There’s a lot that could go wrong.”
I caught myself before I bit the kid’s head off for stating the obvious. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know, kid.”
Nesbit blushed so deeply I could see the change in his complexion even in the darkness. I think it was my use of the word ‘kid’ that did it.
A few minutes passed in tense silence. From the corner of my eye, I watched my rookie deputy open and close his mouth three separate times.
“I’ve never shot anyone.” He said at last. I wasn’t surprised; he’d only been on the job six weeks.
“I haven’t either.”
Nesbit forgot his embarrassment and looked at me sharply. “But, Sheriff, I thought you’d been in law enforcement for over twenty years.”
I nodded. “That’s right. It’s been twenty-two, actually. Most everyone knows I won’t be seeking reelection. I’d dearly like to retire with that record intact, so I’m proceeding to the finish line, so to speak, with extreme caution.”
“I see,” Nesbit said, though it was clear he did not. He would be a decent cop. He seemed good at thinking things through before acting. He had a rational mind. But he didn't feel anything. Maybe that was good. Maybe that would protect him from the hazards of the job that had tripped up Ward.
I thought about another former deputy, Gerald Howie. When he retired three years ago he told me he planned to spend all his free time spoiling his grandkids. “I can finally concentrate on my family,” he had said. Three months later his family and most of us on the force had gathered at his memorial service. Massive coronary. So much for making up for lost time. I wondered where I’d be in another five years.
“If I shoot this guy, he won't suffer.”
I narrowed my eyes at Nesbit. He blushed again but tried to explain himself.
“You’ve seen my target range scores. I'll put one right through his heart if I have to. I might be the best marksman on the force. I won’t let that little girl down.”
“The kidnapper isn’t going to stand there like a target and let you take your time aiming,” I warned. “And he’ll likely use the girl as a shield, so be sure you’ve got him. Be damned sure or hold your fire.”
“Do you think he’ll show? Maybe he knows we won’t meet his ransom demands.”
I shrugged. “We’ll negotiate as the situation allows. It’s obvious he’s disturbed and not thinking clearly. The suspect grabbed the girl as she rode her bike home from school and then called 911. Demanded a quarter of a million for her safe return and gave us the place but not the time. That slip-up allowed us to get here ahead of him.”
As I spoke a car sped through the blinking yellow stoplight. This time the approaching vehicle turned into the park. It was a compact, and I could see two people inside. When I swallowed I was surprised at how dry my mouth suddenly felt as the car drove past our position. I counted to fifteen and eased the patrol car forward. I radioed the other unit to close in from the west entrance. We rolled through the darkness without lights.
“Remember your orders, Nesbit, and remember what I told you. If you can’t get a clear shot, hold your fire. We don’t want to jeopardize the girl.”
The vehicle rolled to a stop next to a picnic shelter. I put the cruiser in park about twenty yards away and turned on the flashers. In the opposite direction Greeley did the same, pinning the suspect’s vehicle in the intersecting beams of our spotlights like a dead beetle stuck through with a pin.
Then the passenger door facing Nesbit and me yawned open and two figures emerged, standing closer together than Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins.
I crouched behind the protection of my patrol car door. My right knee settled to the cold ground with a stabbing protest. From the corner of my eye, I saw that Nesbit had already drawn his Glock 22. He drew a bead. I didn’t look at Greeley and Larimer nor did I feel the need. I trusted them to be where they were supposed to be doing what they were supposed to do.
The kidnapper wore a ski mask and brandished a small handgun, a cheap over-the-counter piece. He waved the gun around just long enough for all of us to see it, and then tucked it behind the sobbing girl’s head. That meant even if Larimer or Greeley had a clear shot they couldn’t take it for fear of the suspect’s finger tightening on his trigger; fire one shot and risk killing them both.
The girl’s name was Abby Tompkins. She was a fourth-grader, according to her parents. I hated that she and her folks had to get caught up in something like this. Her blond hair shone white in the glare of the spotlights. The light washed out her features, making her resemble a clothing store mannequin.
The kidnapper shouted something about money and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Something—though I couldn’t say what—was wrong. Greeley’s shadow preceded his body as he stepped carefully forward. He carried a briefcase stuffed with bills on the top layer, but filled mostly with newspaper. It was only meant to buy us a moment of distraction but now my subconscious needled at my concentration. Did the kidnapper already suspect our ruse? The man in the ski mask shouted for Greeley to place the briefcase on the ground and step back. Something about the kidnapper tickled my brain, like how a tick feels when it’s embedded itself under your skin.
I focused on Abby, who would be my responsibility as events played out. Her sneakers were pink and white. They were scuffed. She wore dark blue jeans and a pink and blue parka. Her coat was unzipped.
The kidnapper tugged at her hood and the fabric slid a few inches off of Abby’s shoulders. I glanced through the open patrol car at Nesbit kneeling behind the passenger door. His body posture told me that he was itching to start the bloodshed that I so dearly wanted to avoid.
“Watch out—I think she's gonna bolt.”
Nesbit didn’t look away from the pair but gave a short nod to indicate he understood.
The masked man pointed his gun in Greeley’s vicinity. He kept shouting and jerking Abby’s parka. He sounded gruff—no, scratch that. He sounded like he was pretending to be gruff, bluffing his way through the situation. I gritted my teeth.
Greeley, still holding the briefcase, stood midway between it and the kidnapper’s vehicle.
The girl stole a glance up at her kidnapper. “Right there. Put it on the ground right there!” He gestured wildly with the gun and Abby slipped out of her coat and ran.
I thumbed the safety on my weapon and sped to intercept her.
The kidnapper fired a shot that seemed to go high and wild over Greeley. Then he turned the gun in the direction of the fleeing girl.
In pulp stories, this would be the part where time slows and the narrator describes in great detail everything that is happening. As if somehow, he has time to take in everything and relate it back in glorious and gritty detail.
That didn’t happen to me.
What happened instead was like the scene in a strobe-lit haunted house attraction. I collided with Abby and knocked her into the snow. I hit the poor kid so hard that I heard her teeth snap together with a crack. Then shot reports came so rapidly that for several terrifying moments I felt certain that one or both of us would get struck by a stray slug. I looked up. The kidnapper’s arms jerked between Greeley’s patrol car and mine with each shot, like gruesome parody of a malfunctioning water sprinkler. I toggled the safety, exhaled slowly. My own words came back to me: Weapon aimed. Center mass. Tap, tap.
Then the echoes of the shots faded. The ringing in my ears did not.
During our fifteen seconds of insanity, snow had begun to fall. Flakes floated in the night sky, unmindful of our situation. The kidnapper had crumpled beside his vehicle. One elbow stuck up in the air like a chicken wing. His legs were folded beneath his chest like a boy who has played late into the night and has at last fallen sleep mid-game.
I helped Abby to her feet. The way my bad knee protested, maybe she should have helped me instead. I led the sobbing girl back to my patrol car. She didn’t try to look around, which I thought was for the best. I noted the spider web of shattered glass in my windshield and the jagged holes punched in the doors.
In the crosshatch of headlight beams, Larimer knelt to fashion a tourniquet for Greeley’s left arm. I looked down at Abby. She appeared shaken. Shaken? Hell, she looked shook up—shook into shock most likely. I wondered if her folks had good insurance. I saw therapy in her future.
Then I saw Nesbit. Damn that kid—he was grinning. I wanted to slap him. Instead I offered up a silent prayer for him. Don’t let this corrupt his soul and make him hungry for what happened tonight. Let it run right off, like water off a turtle’s shell.
Upon securing the girl in the safety of the cruiser’s back seat, I spoke briefly to Nesbit. “Call Louise on the radio and have her dispatch an ambulance.”
I trudged back to the fallen kidnapper and knelt beside him, gun still drawn. I lifted the ski mask enough to press two fingers to his neck and realized the paramedics didn’t have to speed to get here. A little part of me died inside with the realization that I would not reach retirement with my goal intact. Call it selfish, call it idealistic, but I’d been only months away.
I suppose I felt a strange sense of resentment. I must have, because I suddenly felt compelled to see the face of the criminal who had forced my hand, who had snatched something precious from me at the eleventh hour.
Dimly aware of Larimer crunching through the snow-dusted gravel toward me, I pulled the fabric of the ski mask up. When I saw his face I fell back. My heart plummeted like a duck full of buckshot.
“Oh lord!” Larimer stood beside me with one hand over his mouth, eyes wide.
The kidnapper’s mouth was twisted into a sneer that seemed to be partly apologetic and partly triumphant. I’d recognized his voice but in the heat of the moment hadn’t made the connection.
Heywood Ward’s dead eyes stared back at me. I felt sick. Like my former deputy, I’d been duped into performing another suicide by cop.
Adrian Ludens is a mystery and horror author from Rapid City, SD. His debut collection, BEDTIME STORIES FOR CARRION BEETLES is available in a variety of formats from Amazon and Smashwords. Also on Amazon is a collaboration with two other South Dakota-based authors called GRUESOME FACES, GHASTLY PLACES, a collection of horror and suspense. For more information, a cover gallery, and more visit adrianludens.com.
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