In a weedy lot on the outskirts of Memphis, two boys watch a shiny Lincoln pull up to the curb. Eleven-year-old Mark Sway and his younger brother were sharing a forbidden cigarette when a chance ...(more)
Sergeant Hardy appeared in the door, and she froze.
"Good evening, ma'am," he said.
She glared at Mark. "What have you done?"
Hardy stepped inside. "Nothing serious, ma'am."
"Then why are you here?"
"I can explain, Mom. It's sort of a long story."
Hardy closed the door behind him, and they stood in the small room looking awkwardly at one another.
"Well, me and Ricky were back in the woods playing this afternoon, and we saw this big black car parked in a clearing with the motor running, and when we got closer there was this man lying across the trunk with a gun in his mouth. He was dead."
"Suicide, ma'am," Hardy offered.
"And we ran home as fast as we could and I called 911."
Dianne covered her mouth with her fingers.
"The man's name is Jerome Clifford, male white," Hardy reported officially. "He's from New Orleans, and we have no idea why he came here. Been dead for about two hours now, we think, not very long. He left a suicide note."
"What did Ricky do?" Dianne asked.
"Well, we ran home, and he fell on the couch and started sucking his thumb and wouldn't talk. I took him to his bed and covered him."
"How old is he?" Hardy asked with a frown.
"May I see him?"
"Why?" Dianne asked.
"I'm concerned. He witnessed something awful, and he might be in shock."
Dianne walked quickly through the kitchen and down the hall with Hardy behind her and Mark following, shaking his head and clenching his teeth.
Hardy pulled the covers off Ricky's shoulders and touched his arm. The thumb was in the mouth. He shook him, called his name, and the eyes opened for a second. Ricky mumbled something.
"His skin is cold and damp. Has he been ill?" Hardy asked.
The phone rang, and Dianne raced-for it. From the bedroom, Hardy and Mark listened as she told the doctor about the symptoms and the dead body the boys had found.
"Did he say anything when you guys saw the body?" Hardy asked quietly.
"I don't think so. It happened pretty fast. We, uh, we just took off running once we saw it.
He just moaned and grunted all the way, ran sort of funny with his arms straight down. I never saw him run like that, and then as soon as we got home he curled up and hasn't spoken since."
"We need to get him to a hospital," Hardy said.
Mark's knees went weak and he leaned on the wall. Dianne hung up and Hardy met her in the kitchen. "The doctor wants him at the hospital," she said in panic.
"I'll call an ambulance," Hardy said, heading for his car. "Pack a few of his clothes." He disappeared and left the door open.
Dianne glared at Mark, who was weak and needed to sit. He fell into a chair at the kitchen table.
"Are you telling the truth?" she asked.
"Yes ma'am. We saw the dead body, and Ricky freaked out I guess, and we just ran home."
It would take hours to tell the truth at this point. Once they were alone, he might reconsider and tell the rest of the story, but the cop was here now and it would get too complicated. He was not afraid of his mother, and generally came clean when she pressed. She was only thirty, younger than any of his friends' moms, and they had been through a lot together. Their brutal ordeals fighting off his father had forged a bond much deeper than any ordinary mother-son relationship. It hurt to hide this from her. She was scared and desperate, but the things Romey told him had nothing to do with Ricky's condition. A sharp pain hit him in the stomach and the room spun slowly.
"What happened to your eye?"
"I got in a fight in school. It wasn't my fault."
"It never is. Are you okay?"
"I think so."
Hardy lumbered through the door. "The ambu-lance'll be here in five minutes. Which hospital?"
"The doctor said to go to St. Peter's."
"Who's your doctor?"
"Shelby Pediatric Group. They said they would call in a children's psychiatrist to meet us at the hospital." She nervously lit a cigarette. "Do you think he's okay?"
"He needs to be looked at, maybe hospitalized, ma'am. I've seen this before with kids
who witness shootings and stabbings. It's very traumatic, and it could take time for him to get over it. Had a kid last year who watched his mother get shot by a crack dealer, in one of the projects, and the poor little fella is still in the hospital."
"How old was he?"
"Eight,' now he's nine. Won't talk. Won't eat. Sucks his thumb and plays with dolls.
Dianne had heard enough. "I'll pack some clothes."
"You'd better pack clothes for yourself too, ma'am. You might have to stay with him."
"What about Mark?" she asked.
"What time does your husband get home?"
"I don't have one."
"Then pack clothes for Mark too. They might want to keep you overnight."
Dianne stood in the kitchen with her cigarette inches from her lips, and tried to think. She was scared and uncertain. "I don't have health insurance," she mumbled to the window.
"St. Peter's will take indigent cases. You need to get packed."
A crowd gathered around the ambulance as soon as it stopped at Number 17 East Street. They waited and watched, whispering and pointing as the paramedics went inside. Hardy laid Ricky on the stretcher, and they strapped him down under a blanket. Ricky tried to curl, but the heavy Velcro bands kept him straight. He moaned twice, but never opened his eyes. Dianne gently freed his right arm and made the thumb available. Her eyes were watery, but she refused to cry.
The crowd backed away from the rear of the ambulance as the paramedics approached with the stretcher. They loaded Ricky, and Dianne stepped in behind. A few neighbors called out their concerns, but the driver slammed the door before she could answer. Mark sat in the front seat of the police car with Hardy, who hit a switch and suddenly blue lights were fluttering and bouncing off the nearby trailers. The crowd inched away, and Hardy gunned the engine. The ambulance followed.
Mark was too worried and scared to be interested in the radios and mikes and guns and gadgets. He sat still and kept his mouth shut.
"Are you telling the truth, son?" Hardy, suddenly the cop again, asked from nowhere.
"Yes sir. About what?"
"About what you saw?"
"Yes sir. You don't believe me?"
"I didn't say that. It's just a little strange, that's all."
Mark waited a few seconds, and when it was obvious Hardy was waiting for him, he asked, "What's strange?"
"Several things. First, you made the call, but wouldn't give your name. Why not? If you and Ricky just stumbled upon the dead man, why not give your name? Second, why did you sneak back to the scene and hide in the woods. People who hide are afraid. Why didn't you simply return to the scene and tell us what you saw? Third, if you and Ricky saw the same thing, why has he freaked out and you're in pretty good shape, know what I mean?" -
Mark thought for a while, and realized he could think of nothing to say. So he said nothing. They were on the interstate headed for downtown. It was neat to watch the other cars get out of the way. The red ambulance lights were close behind.
"You didn't answer my question," Hardy finally said.
"Why didn't you give your name when you made the call?"
"I was scared, okay. That's the first dead body I ever saw, and it scared me. I'm still
"Then why did you sneak back to the scene? Why were you trying to hide from us?"
"I was scared, you know, but I just wanted to see what was going on. That's not a crime, is it?"
They left the expressway, and were now darting through traffic. The tall buildings of downtown Memphis were in sight.
"I just hope you're telling the truth," Hardy said.
"Don't you believe me?"
"I've got my doubts."
Mark swallowed hard and looked in the side mirror. "Why do you have doubts?"
"I'll tell you what I think, kid. You want to hear it?"
"Sure," Mark said slowly.
"Well, I think you kids were in the woods smoking. I found some fresh cigarette butts under that tree with the rope. I figure you were under there having a little smoke and you saw the whole thing."
Mark's heart stopped and his blood ran cold, but he knew the importance of trying to appear calm. Just shrug it off. Hardy wasn't there. He didn't see anything. He caught his hands shaking, so he sat on them. Hardy watched him.
"Do you arrest kids for smoking cigarettes?" Mark asked, his voice a shade weaker.
"No. But kids who lie to cops get in all sorts of trouble."
"I'm not lying, okay. I've smoked cigarettes there before, but not today. We were just
walking through the woods, thinking about maybe having a smoke, and we walked up on the car and Romey."
Hardy hesitated slightly, then asked, "Who's Romey?"
Mark braced himself and breathed deeply. In a flash, he knew it was over. He'd blown it.