The Final Victim (Chapter-2)
The Final Victim (Chapter-2)29 mins 322 29 mins 322
Lindsay Bachman pulled her Civic into the driveway and sat for a moment savoring the cold air pouring from the air conditioner vent. Grant would already be at school, probably having coffee with his old buddy, Lou. God only knew what they talked about, although she assumed much of it centered on her these days. She checked her watch. 8:07. No, he would already be teaching his first-hour class. The neighborhood drowsed in the steamy morning heat. She could hear the rhythmic thwack, thwack, thwack of a neighbor’s lawn sprinkler, while farther away, maybe out on Wabash Avenue, came the ululating whoop of sirens.
Why does it have to be so goddamned hot? Christ.
Lindsay killed the engine and dashed into the house, where the artificially cooled air welcomed her. She caught her image in the full-length mirror and stopped, posed. Not bad, considering she’d just left her daybreak yoga class at the gym and was an absolute sweaty disaster. It was nothing a nice long shower wouldn’t fix. She dropped her gym bag in the foyer, wandered into the dining room, and tossed her keys onto the table.
The house was so quiet, so blissfully peaceful. She walked past the fireplace mantle and stopped, her eyes coming to rest on the silver-framed wedding picture. She heard more sirens outside, warbling, rising and falling—something’s going on somewhere. She listened for a moment and lost interest, her eyes returning to the picture. God, we look so happy. She felt a lump rising in her throat. Tears burned her eyes. She and Grant had fought like hell the previous night. They always fought nowadays, although it was more furious hissing and tortured silences than shouted words, so as to not disturb little Kate and Grace. She couldn’t remember how this one started, but it was bad. It exhausted her, all this fighting.
She occasionally feared she was losing her mind. Case in point: She’d turned on the car radio just last week and one of her favorite songs from childhood, “No Myth” by Michael Penn, came on. She remembered lying in bed at night when she was eight years old, a big dopey smile on her face, dreaming of her Romeo in black jeans. But when she heard the song on the radio last week, she sobbed so hard she had to pull over. What the hell was wrong with her? Well. She knew the answer to that one. Like the song said, she’d only wanted someone to dance with. Ha. Grant was a decent man, a good father, and all that. He was. But he was also, and there really was no other way to put it, boring. Grant Bachman was white bread when what she always wanted was a good Asiago focaccia.
She sat at the dining room table and rummaged in her purse. She pulled out her cell phone and looked at it. The girls were at daycare. Grant was at school. She had time to kill before work.
She could call Matt.
She pondered this; a real internal struggle. The very thought of her lover brought with it so many conflicting emotions—anger, fear, longing, guilt. Before she could decide, the phone buzzed in her hand. She looked down at the incoming number.
Three minutes later, Lindsay drove too fast through familiar streets clogged with people walking or running toward the college. This is all my fault, she thought wildly, blinking back tears. I deserve this, not Grant. Oh please. Not Grant. Twice she swerved to miss people jogging down the middle of the road. God, it must be bad. Those who weren’t hurrying to the scene stood in their front yards, huddled together. She wondered if there was some sociological reason for such flocking behavior. Grant would know—if he was alive.
She swerved again, this time barely missing a woman wearing shorts and a lemony T-shirt. Lindsay’s right tires slipped onto the loose gravel between pavement and grass, and her car fishtailed. She over-corrected, and barely avoided a sideswipe collision with a car trying to pass her, its horn bleating. She looked and caught a glimpse of the man driving, his face crimson from rage or terror, maybe both.
She straightened the Civic and drove on. A collision. That’s exactly how this felt. Her secret life was about to slam head-on into her picture-perfect professor’s wife existence. Right out in the open, for everyone to see. Please God, not like this.
She knew there were fatalities. A lot of them. Matt told her that much during his quick phone call. She prayed Grant wasn’t among them. A state patrol car screamed past her. She slowed and pulled over as another went by in a blur of red and blue lights; it was so close her car swayed from its backwash. The cop hit his siren and the street runners parted like the Red Sea.
A memory surfaced. Back in college—when things were still good between them—Grant left Lindsay at his downtown Boston apartment to run up the street for a bottle of wine. It was a lazy winter Sunday; a light snow fell softly outside. She curled up on his sofa like a contented cat, waiting for her man to return. A few minutes after he left, she heard sirens. Curious, she walked to the bay window and saw two patrol cars and an ambulance pass by on the narrow street below. Grant’s neighborhood was transitional, to put it mildly. She knew that much from reading the newspaper. People were always getting mugged or shot, even on lazy winter Sundays. Over the next several minutes, she worked herself into such a panic that when Grant opened the door, wine bottle in hand, she smothered him in tearful kisses.
Another siren brought her back. She neared the college and slowed to a crawl, unsure how to proceed. All the intersections around the scene were blocked. Police officers in full battle gear stood beside the barricades, their assault rifles at the ready. She pulled up to a county deputy and rolled down her window. Her words came in one long rush of breath: “My husband is a professor at the college, and I really need to find him.”
The deputy shook his head. “Please turn your vehicle around and leave.”
“But you don’t understand. I need to know he’s okay.”
“Someone will be in touch,” he said. “Turn your vehicle around, ma’am, right now.”
She burst into tears. She couldn’t help herself. It wasn’t a ploy, but it worked beautifully nonetheless. The young cop sighed and leaned down. He had a flushed face and expressive brown eyes.
“Look, maybe I can radio ahead and see if I can get permission to let you in. No promises. But I gotta see some I.D. first.”
She smiled through tears and rummaged in her purse for her driver’s license. “My husband’s name is Grant Bachman. He teaches American history.” She handed her license to the cop, who studied it for several seconds.
After a brief radio conversation, he motioned back up the street. “Okay. Park your car there along the street. You’ll have to walk the rest of the way. And stay behind the barricades.”
Five minutes later, she approached the college on foot. Up ahead were countless police officers and emergency workers milling around a line of ambulances and squad cars. A large black panel van marked Tactical Response Team was backed up the school’s front door. She started to run, and then pulled up. Grant was sitting on the bumper of an ambulance, alive but covered in blood. And standing nearby was Matt, an assault rifle in his hands.
She took a deep breath and ran on.
Grant was perched on the aluminum step-up on the back of an ambulance, smoking a bummed cigarette and answering questions from two young police officers, when Lindsay slipped under the yellow police tape and bolted across the parking lot toward him. His wife’s eyes were swollen and red, and she still wore black yoga pants from her morning class. Her honey-blond hair, tied back in a ponytail, swung from side to side as she ran. She looked absolutely gorgeous, as always. Despite their problems, he felt an honest rush of affection for her.
“Stop,” one of the officers shouted.
“Cool it,” whispered Matt Sparks, flashing a killer smile. “That’s his wife.”
“Oh my God,” Lindsay cried. She veered around the two cops, both of whom watched her closely, and ran into Grant’s arms, surprising him. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” he said, hugging her back. Lindsay smelled faintly of yesterday’s body spray and today’s gym-sweat.
“I came as soon as I heard. What happened?” She was breathing so hard she could barely speak. She glanced at the two young police officers and dissolved into tears. Grant pulled her closer. He’d never seen her so upset.
“Hey, come on. It’s okay. I’m fine.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Sure, his heartbeat had returned to normal and his hands no longer shook. But he felt disconnected somehow, as though he’d floated upward and was now looking down at himself. The feeling was so realistic that for a moment he actually felt a rush of vertigo from the height. He’d washed his face so many times since the shooting, trying to scrub off Lou’s brains, that his skin felt raw, burnt. He realized he still held the bummed cigarette. Lindsay hadn’t noticed. In truth, she didn’t notice much about Grant these days. But he was a runner, for Christ’s sake, and had quit smoking years ago. He flicked away the butt, ashamed.
As he held his sobbing wife for the first time in weeks, he found himself thinking again about the shooter, Justin King. Even though Grant only met him a week ago, the kid seemed so average. That was the thing. He seemed so normal. It chilled Grant to even think about it.
A blue Ford sedan pulled up and a silver-haired, grim-faced cop wearing a gold badge climbed out. One of the two young cops went over and talked to him for several seconds. The older man listened, nodded, and approached Grant.
“Grant Bachman?” The cop had basset-hound eyes, dark and expressive. He looked exhausted already. “I’m Lieutenant Val Alessi, acting chief of the Sycamore Police Department. We need to talk.” He shifted his hound’s eyes toward Lindsay. “Alone, please.”
Grant spent the next twenty minutes sitting in Alessi’s Ford, answering the same questions he’d answered earlier.
“So there was nothing at all that led you to believe that someone was helping him?”Alessi finally asked, fishing in his shirt pocket for a cigarette. He offered the pack to Grant, who shook his head. The lieutenant nodded, wedged the cigarette between his rubbery lips, and lit it.
“It happened so quickly,” Grant said. “But I’m sure he was the only shooter.”
Alessi exhaled smoke and studied Grant’s trembling hands. “Maybe you ought to get looked at by someone. Shock can take a while to set in.”
As Alessi spoke, Grant watched as four helmeted SWAT team members exited the building with their assault rifles held low, relaxed now. Uniformed police officers milled about, talking quietly. Sirens warbled in the distance as more ambulances arrived from nearby towns. Across the street, behind the looping strands of yellow police tape, stood dozens of students and parents, staring wide-eyed at the old school’s red-brick exterior. Candles flickered as stuffed animals and flowers piled up at the foot of a gnarled oak tree just outside the police line. Grant watched a tiny blond girl of about five in a sun dress and flip-flops toss her ratty teddy bear on the pile before scampering back to her anxious mother.
“I’m fine.” Grant said, looking away.
Mondays were Sergeant Rocco Beaupre’s day off, and had been for the entire seventeen years he’d been on the Sycamore Police Department. He’d slept until six (two hours after his wife, Melanie, left to open the diner), dawdled over scrambled eggs, bacon, and coffee with his daughter Amanda before she left for class at Sycamore High School, and then watched Morning Joe on cable. A typical New Hampshire libertarian—he’d secretly voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because he despised that phony peacenik John Kerry—Rocco adored Morning Joe. Once Joe was over, his plan was to mow the yard before noon, water the little backyard vegetable garden, and get inside before the heat of the day took hold. The Red Sox were at Fenway at two, and he fully expected to be in front of the flat screen with a cold beer by first pitch.
When his department-issued cell phone buzzed, he let loose a string of curses. There would be no Red Sox game for Rocco.
Now he pulled his cruiser into the SCC parking lot, unshaven but at least dressed in his gray and black patrol uniform. He saw his silver-haired boss sitting in his unmarked Ford with someone. A tangy ocean breeze greeted him as he exited his cruiser. Might rain soon, he thought, hitching up his pants over his slim hips. Good. The rain would wash out the yard, the garden, and the Red Sox. He wouldn’t miss a goddamn thing.
“Well?” he asked two young officers standing next to an ambulance. Both were relatively new to the force, and both occasionally got under their sergeant’s skin. Still, Rocco had to admit he saw potential in the handsome one, Matt Sparks, if for no other reason than his war record. Rumor around the station house was Sparks saw some hellish action in Afghanistan. And best of all, in Rocco’s opinion, the youngster refused to talk about it. Rocco himself was a decorated veteran of the first Gulf War. He didn’t talk about it, either.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Sarge,” said the other officer, keeping his voice low so a pretty young woman in gym clothes standing nearby couldn’t hear. “It’s bad in there.” He was smoking a cigarette in plain view, a violation of department rules. But Rocco noted the young cop’s pale face and trembling hands, and decided to give him a pass.
“How bad?” Rocco asked, turning away from the young cop and directing his question to Sparks.
“Pretty bad, Sarge. Bodies everywhere, blood all over the floor. I’d say more than fifty dead,” Sparks said. “I found the shooter. He’s dead.”
Rocco nodded and thought, sweet Jesus. “Who’s with Val?”
“Some history teacher,” the other officer answered, talking too fast. “He took out the shooter.”
“Good for him,” Rocco said. He saw Sparks frown.
Sparks shrugged and smiled, and Rocco was again impressed. Hell, the kid even had beautiful teeth.
“There’s just something weird about the dude,” Sparks said. His gaze flickered toward the young woman in gym clothes, whom Rocco mentally identified as the teacher’s wife. She stood several feet away, watching them. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, though. It’s probably nothing.”
“Oh, Christ.” Rocco said. “You’ve been watching too many damned cop movies.”
After the two young officers headed off to help with crowd control, Rocco stood and gazed at the gathering crush of media and onlookers across the street. Tearing down Wabash toward him were a half-dozen fully lit cruisers from surrounding counties and the state patrol, their sirens emitting those little blips and blats that sirens do nowadays. Countless more cruisers, fire trucks, ambulances, and SWAT trucks lined both sides of the street.
One good thing about a single-perp shooting, even a big one like this, Rocco thought, is that once it’s over, it’s pretty much over. The next several days and weeks would be spent on all the mundane investigative work—shoveling shit in the form of paperwork, in other words—that makes up ninety-nine percent of police work, despite what people read about in books or see in films. That, and dealing with the damned media.
Yep, he thought, hitching up his trousers, the worst is over. Thank God and Sonny Jesus for that.
Six hours later, a hungry and exhausted Grant Bachman slouched in a plastic chair in a cramped room at the Sycamore Police Department while a young clerk inputted the last of his statement into a desktop computer. Phones rang, people shouted, computers clacked, and detectives rushed to and fro. Grant watched, fascinated, as the clerk’s slender fingers danced across the keyboard.
“All done.” She looked up and smiled. “I’ll go find Val and see if he needs you for anything else today.”
After she left, Grant stood, wiped his face for the hundredth time with a wet washcloth, and peeked out of the open doorway, hoping to catch sight of Lindsay in the waiting room. Instead he saw Annie DeWitt sitting in a folding chair in a small room across the hallway, staring at her cell phone. They had been separated after the police found them in the classroom, and Grant had forgotten about her in the ensuing chaos.
She caught his eye, slipped her phone into the pocket of her sundress, and nodded at him. Except for their music discussion after class, Grant hadn’t paid much attention to Annie during the week he’d known her. She was obviously intelligent and easy to talk to, but when it came to female students it was easier and safer to keep them at a distance. Now, for the first time, he really saw her—a slender girl of average looks with sleepy blue eyes and shoulder-length hair the color of burnished copper. Her pale skin was flawless, with the exception of a small but noticeable scar above her right eye. Her colorful sundress landed three inches above her knees as she sat. On her feet were pink flip-flops, in her hand the battered notebook. Just an ordinary kid, he thought, but a live one. Seeing her brought back that sense of joy he’d felt in the classroom. She was watching him with interest, so he glanced both ways and, seeing no one, slipped across the hall to her room.
“Hey,” he whispered, stopping in the doorway. “How are you doing?”
“Okay, I guess.”
The calf of her left leg was wrapped in a bloody bandage. She flicked the injured leg back and forth, watching it move with a kind of dazed fascination. Shock, he thought. Her toenails were painted metallic blue. Her eyes followed his to her leg.
“I got hurt.” She lifted her leg toward him. “See?”
“I’m sorry. Did he shoot you?” The very idea that anyone could shoot a kid like her was almost too much to imagine. But then, everything that had happened that morning was too much to imagine.
“I think so. I don’t remember much.”
Grant was struck by an overwhelming urge to take her into his arms again. Annie looked so vulnerable, so frightened, and so young. He thought again of his own daughters, only three and five.
Glancing at Annie’s injured leg, he asked, “Is it serious?”
“Not really. I’ve apparently suffered the infamous ‘flesh wound’ we’ve all heard so much about.” She shrugged and nibbled her lower lip. “From what I hear, I was lucky.”
“Yes, you were.” He was already backing out of the door. “Look, I need to go find my wife. Hang in there, okay?”
“Did you really kill him?” Her eyes were blue and very large. “The shooter, I mean.”
Grant felt bile rise in his throat. “Yes,” he said, before bolting for the restroom.
“Bye,” she called after him, her voice echoing down the tiled hallway.
A few minutes later, Lindsay poked her head into the room where Grant sat awaiting permission to leave. “I need to get the girls before five,” she told him. “We’ll talk at home.” She pecked her husband on the cheek and walked quickly through the police station, eyes down. The last thing she needed was to run into Matt again. She felt awful leaving Grant, but in truth, she wasn’t ready to spend time with her husband. Not yet, anyway. She just wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. What can you say to someone who’s been through such horror?
Of course, that wasn’t the only reason. She was afraid he noticed something odd about her behavior earlier, at the scene. She could claim she was overcome with fear. Really, had anyone been acting normal at that damned school? She sighed. Everything was so complicated now, so fraught with peril. She glanced up at the uniformed police officers milling about the station and walked faster.
She stopped by the daycare center and picked up Grace and Kate. The children spent the day in lockdown because of the shooting, the frazzled director told her. They hadn’t been informed of the shooting, but seemed anxious when told their mother was coming early to pick them up. In the car, Lindsay explained that Daddy would be home for dinner. She didn’t mention the shooting.
Once home, she settled her daughters in front of the living room TV to watch a Disney film, and wandered into the kitchen. She was boiling a pot of water for some tea when her cell phone buzzed. She looked down. It was Matt. Guilt washed over her again, so she hit the ignore button and made her tea.
Her eyes landed on the oven. When Grant was little, his mother used to make him homemade brownies. It was their special thing. Even in college, hardly a week went by without an overnight package arriving at Grant’s apartment—a cookie tin full of brownies. Even Lindsay, who hated sweets, loved the gooey, frosted chocolate squares. Marjorie Bachman died seven years ago from breast cancer, and her death devastated Grant, who was an only child. He didn’t talk much about his mother, and he never mentioned the brownies again. Lindsay couldn’t remember the last time he talked to his father. Grant blamed The Major for all of his perceived problems, and Lindsay long ago gave up trying to mediate their nasty little war. Grant shut down whenever anyone mentioned his parents or his childhood, a fact she sometimes used against him. But in her defense, she did it in an attempt to get him to open up. Grant never shared his innermost thoughts and feelings with anyone, except maybe Lou Beam at school.
Lindsay occasionally felt guilty about pushing Grant to live in her hometown. Sure, it was tough at first. Her parents hadn’t taken to Grant early on. But they warmed up a bit over the years, despite what Grant thought. She knew he wanted bigger things in life—she did, too. But would it kill him to spend a few years in Sycamore before moving on to teach at a bigger college? They were still relatively young, and she didn’t buy his argument that moving would become more difficult when the girls started school. Look at how many times Grant moved when he was young. He would tell her that was part of his problem; she would tell him there was no problem and that he turned out just fine. Another fight would ensue.
Maybe now would be a good time to pack up and get out, severing all the old ties and starting over. She was tired of the arguments, the lies, and the guilt. She wanted only to be happy, which, of course, was exactly the sentiment that led to the affair with Matt Sparks two years earlier.
She got up and rummaged through her recipe drawer until she found the yellowed sheet of notebook paper filled with Marjorie Bachman’s slanted handwriting. “Grant’s special brownies” was centered proudly on the top line.
Lindsay scanned the list of ingredients: butter, two eggs, white sugar, vanilla extract, unsweetened cocoa powder, flour, and salt for the brownies; butter, cocoa powder, honey (Marjorie’s secret ingredient?), more vanilla, and confectioner’s sugar for the frosting.
She had everything but confectioner’s sugar, and she was pretty sure plain sugar would do. As she was putting the brownies into the oven, her phone buzzed. She checked the number and ignored it. Seconds later, it went off again. Sighing, she checked to make sure the girls were engaged in their movie, stepped out the back door, and answered it.
Grant smelled it the moment he opened his car door. Burning tires, he thought, or maybe some kind of melted plastic. Whatever it was, it made his headache worse. He trudged up the front step in a daze, his mind still replaying the shooting. He couldn’t stop. He honestly feared he might hear those screams forever, that he might close his eyes thirty years from now and still see all that blood.
“In here,” Lindsay called from the kitchen. The entire house was filled with blue smoke, so much so that his eyes burned.
“Mommy burned something special,” Grace said, looking up at her father. “She said lots of really bad words.”
“I’ll bet she did.” Grant knelt and hugged his girls, holding them so tightly they squealed with laughter. He finally managed to untangle himself from his daughters, both of whom immediately went back to watching “The Little Mermaid.”
“Give me a minute,” he hollered in to his wife. He went into the bathroom and shut the door, turned on the decorative lights above the basin, and studied his face in the mirror. He looked older, paler, with deep lines etched around his eyes and mouth. He washed his face, paying particular attention to the area around his mouth. The skin there was already red and raw. Try as he might, he couldn’t scrub the taste and feel of Lou Beam’s brains from his lips. When he finished, he looked around the bathroom, which was so totally Lindsay: pale tangerine wallpaper, old-fashioned (and damned expensive) steel fixtures, and dozens of sea shells. They filled every shelf and nook. His wife had a thing for shells. Back in college, they spent many happy hours scouring the beaches north of Boston, filling plastic buckets with sea shells of all shapes and sizes.
Lindsay took forever washing and categorizing each one, studying her dozens of shell identification books. He couldn’t remember when she stopped, but the colorful books were no longer in the bookshelf and the shells were now covered with a fine coat of dust.
“Wow,” he said, upon entering the kitchen. He could barely see his wife through the pungent haze. “What happened?”
The back door was propped open and all of the windows were up. Lindsay sat at the table crying big snuffling tears. Oily smoke poured from the oven. A pan of something sat on the stovetop, still smoldering. Whatever it had been, it now resembled nothing more than an oversized hockey puck.
“I-I-I made you brownies,” she said.
“That’s not how they smelled when Mom made them.” He was joking, trying to make her feel better, but she flinched as though he’d struck her. Lindsay never could take a joke.
“Please don’t, Grant.” She blew a lock of hair from her eyes. “I tried to do something nice for you after everything that happened. And I screwed it up.”
“Hey, come on. I’m sorry. I was kidding.” He went to her and leaned down for a kiss. She turned her head away, crying harder.
“There’s nothing for dinner,” she said through tears. “I had the girls, and you were still at the police station. I didn’t get to the store.”
“I’m really not hungry, Lindsay.”
“Maybe we could go out?” She looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes. “It’s been awhile since we ate at a restaurant.”
And here was the guilt trip. Classic Lindsay. In the hours since the shooting, there had been a white-hot rage coursing through his veins like some kind of combustible liquid. And Lindsay brought the fucking matches. Big surprise. He stared at her, breathing hard. Here he was, just home from the worst day of his life, a day in which he had shot and killed a kid, and she was angling to go out for dinner, trying to make him feel guilty. Lindsay Jefferson Bachman was the most spoiled woman he’d ever met, and that was saying something. He should have listened to his mother, who upon meeting Lindsay, smiled politely, and then later told her son, “That one’s a handful. Be careful.”
He took a deep breath, determined to suppress the explosion he felt building inside. “I don’t feel like going out, Lindsay. My God, I can’t believe you even suggested it.”
“I’m just trying to help,” she said. “I thought maybe we could spend some time together as a family. There’s nothing to eat here.”
“Because you burned the fucking brownies,” he said. He struggled to keep his voice down so the girls wouldn’t hear. “Remember?”
“I got distracted,” she said, crying harder. “I’m sorry.”
He sat at the table, suddenly exhausted. Just the act of speaking took every ounce of his energy. Despite everything he was going through, he knew this one was on him. He’d baited her, looking for a fight. For some reason, he felt the need to punish someone for the events of the day. “Look, let’s forget it. The last thing I want is to spend the night fighting again.”
“Fine.” She glared at him through her tears. “But you started it.”
“Please stop, Lindsay. Okay?”
She spent the next ten minutes silently airing out the kitchen and cleaning the oven, burning her hand in the process. “Ouch, fuck,” she muttered, throwing a blackened oven mitt across the room. “We need new mitts.”
“I’ll make a note of it.”
She stood watching him, hands on her hips, a wisp of blond hair hanging into her eyes. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head. “That figures. When was the last time you opened up about anything, Grant?” She softened. “I just want to help you, and you don’t seem to want it.”
“Sorry to be such a disappointment.” He stood.
“I bet you’d talk to your mother about it, wouldn’t you?”
And there it was. He turned on her. “Don’t, Lindsay. Not now.”
She cried harder. “What the hell is wrong with us? Why can’t we have a civil conversation about something … this fucking big?”
“I don’t know,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his keys. “I honestly don’t know.”
She sat up, a look of alarm on her face. “Please don’t leave, Grant.”
“I need some time to think,” he said, heading for the door.
The sunset that Monday evening was glorious—a fiery kaleidoscope of orange and red melting into a stately gray-blue line of Douglas firs and hardwoods which marked the western boundary of Sycamore, New Hampshire. Eighteen miles to the east, a scrim of white fog settled in for the night above the black, roiling waters of the Atlantic.
Rocco Beaupre grew up in Sycamore, a modest town of clapboard houses, white-spiraled churches, and Gothic municipal buildings nestled on the southern coast of a tiny state known mainly for its nineteen miles of coastline, John Irving novels, and the politically significant upstate burg of Dixville Notch.
Rocco (whose given name, Rockford Clyde, he kept secret for obvious reasons) knew Sycamore as a good place to raise a family, a quintessential New England village where everyone knew everyone and secrets didn’t remain secret for long—except for his name, he was pleased to note. It was a town where, if the wind was right, the sweet-and-salty tang of the Atlantic ruffled people’s hair and cleared their sinus cavities, a place where fresh lobsters were always available, where old men huddled around hot stoves in the frigid depths of winter, where the pies were fresh, the diners always crowded, and the residents unfailingly polite. It was not a place where a boy armed with an assault rifle slaughtered kids by the dozens. Or so Rocco thought, before his cell phone interrupted Morning Joe.
He grunted now and lowered the sun visor as Officer Jimmy Nash piloted the cruiser down Main Street into the dying glare of the day. Small clusters of townsfolk huddled in front of taverns and cafes, their pallid faces solemn.
Fifty kids dead, most of them only a couple years older than my own daughter, Rocco thought. He shivered in the August heat. Sycamore’s small police force was overwhelmed from the moment officers arrived at the scene, even before the blood dried and the gun smoke dissipated. The slow and arduous task of identifying the victims and notifying their families had only just begun. Even with the arrival of county deputies and the state patrol’s crime scene technicians, it would be days before any real answers might be forthcoming.
Rocco was now in charge of the shooting scene. An hour before, Val had gone home to grab some much-needed sleep and check on his wife, Elizabeth, who was in the final stages of colon cancer. Betsy Alessi (nee Billups) had been a vivacious dark-haired beauty and winner of the Miss Sycamore Pageant in 1978. She was now enrolled in a home-hospice program, waiting to die. Val and Betsy Alessi were childless, and Val never said whether it was by choice or by fate. In fact, true to his stoic Yankee roots, Val seldom mentioned Betsy or her impending death at all, and Rocco could only imagine the financial, mental, and spiritual cost his boss paid on a daily basis.
And now this, coming only two weeks after Chief Phillips crashed his cruiser into a tree out on Wabash. His death stunned the entire department. Many officers still wore a strip of black memorial cloth stretched over their badges. Rocco’s heart ached for his lieutenant, and he was proud and honored to be his right-hand man—not to mention his brother-in-law, given that Val was Melanie Beaupre’s older brother. The matrimonial connection was something neither Val nor Rocco spoke of during work hours.
This trip marked the fourth time today he’d been out to the campus, and he was by now exhausted and hungry, and—with the exception of a Coke and some chips from one of the campus vending machines—knew he would remain so for the next several hours.
“Pull into the main lot,” Rocco said to Nash as they approached the college. “But try to avoid the reporters. I’ve had enough of their shit already.”
Nash nodded and turned onto Wabash Avenue, the main thoroughfare running past Sycamore Community College. Lining the street leading to the school were dozens of television news vans and personal vehicles belonging to family members of the victims as well as curious townsfolk. In the gathering twilight, the pulsating red and blue lights from the police cruisers and SWAT trucks were reflected in a hundred windshields. This is big time, Rocco thought. God help us.
“Holy shit, Sarge,” Jimmy Nash said as he wheeled into the lot. “Look at this.”
Dozens of cars sat buried under what looked like thousands of flowers, notes, and stuffed animals. The tiny mountains of color had materialized in the three or four hours since they were last there. The flower mounds, which reminded Rocco of ancient Indian burial tombs, were scattered haphazardly throughout the parking lot. Then it hit him. SCC was a commuter school. The cars belonged to the unfortunate students and faculty members who hadn’t claimed their vehicles—for obvious reasons. He’d never seen anything like it.
“Stop here,” he said, reaching for the doorknob with a shaking hand. “And whatever you do, don’t run over anyone.”
Dozens of people, many of them students, gathered around the mounds staring at their smart phones. The brightly lit screens illuminated their blank faces, giving them a ghostly appearance that sent a chill down Rocco’s spine. An eerie silence hung over the parking lot, broken only by the hushed babbling of TV reporters doing their live spots.
As the officers climbed from the cruiser, a beautiful girl of about nineteen approached them. She was holding her phone and crying.
“Please help me,” she said, looking at Rocco with wild, liquid eyes. “I’ve been texting my boyfriend all day and he won’t answer me. And his car is still here.” She grabbed Rocco’s arm, her voice breaking. “His name is Austin Blackwell. I love him so much. Please help me find him, officer. Please?”
Before he could answer, others swarmed him, crying and begging for some help, some answers, some hope.
“My daughter,” said a man of about Rocco’s age. “She was in there this morning.” He cast his red eyes toward the college. “Her name is Britney Jacobs. I can’t get through to the hospital. That’s her little Ford over there. We haven’t heard anything from her and we … we can’t leave.” He stopped, glanced at his sobbing wife. “We just need to know, one way or the other.”
By now more than a hundred people surrounded the officers, pushing Rocco back against one of the car-mounds. He could smell the sickly sweet odor of cut flowers. At his feet was a fuzzy white teddy bear, its dead-black eyes staring up at him.
“Folks, please,” Rocco shouted, holding up both arms. “I know you’re all frightened and worried about your loved ones.” He glanced at Nash. “But you need to give us some space to do our jobs. We’ll get you answers as soon as humanly possible.”
The girl who was looking for Austin Blackwell started to sob. “He’s dead, isn’t he? I just know he is.” Her knees buckled and Rocco instinctively reached out. She collapsed into his arms and he felt her hot tears soaking the shoulder of his uniform shirt. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he murmured, hugging her and thinking of his sixteen-year-old daughter. “We’ll do our best to find him. I promise.”
“Why does this keep happening?” she sobbed, looking up at him. “Why?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Rocco said. He thought again of his daughter and broke down. They held onto one another for several seconds—a gruff middle-aged cop and a beautiful young girl, momentarily broken by the world’s insanity.
The television cameras loved it.