I pulled up outside the small laundrette and checked the address that the dispatcher had provided. The weather had kept most sensible folks indoors. The rain fell in huge, cold drops, punching holes in the snow. It would wash it away eventually but tonight it was turning the clean snow to slush and making the city streets a little more grim than usual. I slipped my official parking identification card onto the dashboard. A lot of fancy words that boiled down to, ”Real cop on duty, I park where I want” but in words easy for traffic cops to understand. There should have been a picture, just in case.
I braced myself for the cold and pushed open the door. The cold hit me hard but I could see the witness standing in his doorway so I pretended it didn’t bother me. Mr Han, Asian male, mid forties, wearing a green jumper with a giant reindeer face on the front complete with red nose, he was probably Korean if he lived in this area. A kid, probably his son, peeked out from behind him. Recording everything on his cellphone. I pushed out my chest and smiled brightly. I felt like I was on the TV show, Cops. Mr Han said nothing but pointed down the alleyway beside his store.
I indicated to the door behind him, a warm glow escaped the hallway and the smell of exotic cooking made me salivate. “For your own safety sir, please stay in your house and keep the door locked.” I looked down at the kid with the camera and winked, “I’ll take care of this.” Detective Brogan, on the case.
The alley was long and dark and filled with dumpsters. Unusually for this city, it didn’t smell too bad. Vents from the laundrette one side pumped the flowery scent of fabric softener into the air and there was the sharp tangy smell of Korean barbeque wafting from the restaurant on the other side. It would be pleasant if it wasn’t for the freezing rain dripping down my collar. I shivered and pushed a discarded shopping cart out of my way.
“Okay Doug, the games up. I know you’re in here. You got sloppy, and we got witnesses.”
I fumbled in my belt and pulled out a long Maglite flashlight. It would have been easier without my thick gloves but I didn’t want to get frostbite, not over a loser like Doug Appleby. I moved the flashlight across the scene just like they taught us in the academy, left to right then up and down.
“Listen up Doug. I’m cold and wet and I’m guessing you are too. Don’t stretch this out any longer than it needs to be.”
I heard the unmistakable clink of glass bottles being knocked over. From behind a dumpster. A face appeared, shielded from the light by a skinny arm.
“Chuck? Is that you?” Doug’s voice sounded weak compared to the last time I had spoken to him.
“That’s Officer Brogan to you. Step out into the open and keep your hands where I can see them.” I kept the light shining in his eyes to keep him off balance. If this all went well, I would be back in the nice, warm, precinct before the end of shift.
“Chuck. I didn’t do it. You know me. I couldn’t have done what they said. Not to Claire, not to the Browning girl either.”
“Not my problem, Doug. If you’re innocent, the court’s will decide.” Fat chance. All the evidence pointed to him. Beyond a reasonable doubt, as they say, “Now turn around and place your hands behind your back, I’m going to cuff you then walk you back to my car, where it’s warm and dry. Sound good?”
He said nothing. He had been on the run for three days and he looked terrible. His clothes were dirty and wet and the hair around his bald patch stuck out in every direction. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy. He didn’t turn around.
“I’m serious Doug, turn around.”
He stepped forward, “I’m innocent. I have proof.”
Dammit, this was the last thing I needed tonight,
“Stay back.” I said in a calm, authoritative voice and pulled my sidearm from the holster. I had forgotten about the thick gloves and the gun slipped through my fingers and landed in the slushy mess at my feet.
“Step back,” I said again but less calm and with less authority. I dipped the flashlight to search for the gun. Doug Appleby smashed into me, knocking me from my feet. I swung blindly with the Maglite but didn’t connect. I scrambled to my feet and scanned the ground. Too late. Doug stood with my service revolver pointed at face. His hand shaking.
I felt my heart hammering in my chest and threw my hands out instinctively to shield myself. “Whoa Doug. What are you doing?”
He blinked as if the reversal of power was as much as a surprise to him as to was to me. He shook his head, like he was clearing his thoughts but the only thing he said was, “I’m innocent.”
“I told you buddy. If that’s true then the courts will let you go. They let you go last time, didn’t they? They couldn’t find any evidence, could they?”
He shook his head and looked like he would cry.
I kept on, “If they couldn’t find any evidence against you with the browning girl and you didn’t take Claire, then you have nothing to worry about.”
“They didn’t find any evidence because I’m innocent.” His voice raised a few octaves, “And nobody believes me.”
“I believe you buddy. I always have. We’ve been neighbours for ten years.”
“Yeah, that’s right fifteen years. You’re right. That’s a long time isn’t it? That’s a lot of Christmas cards and friendly waves. Don’t I give you a friendly wave every time I see you Doug?”
“You arrested me. You said that you found that bloody hammer in my back yard.”
“That’s my job buddy, you know that. What would you have done if you were me? It was your hammer, in your yard covered in the Browning girl’s blood.”
“But I didn’t do it.”
“I know that now. The courts threw the case out didn’t they? I was there when they did it. I was happy for you.”
The gun shook in his hands, I could see his hands blue with the cold and he probably hadn’t eaten for days. The revolver was a Colt detective special and weighed twenty one ounces, not all that heavy but not designed to be held out for long periods with one arm.
“Doug, just put the gun down. We can talk about this.”
Something changed in him, his eyes glinted, almost feral and he lifted the gun higher, “How could you even think that I could have done those horrible things to that girl?”
“She spent a lot of time at your house. People didn’t think it was proper. I saw you myself, from my kitchen window. She would laugh at everything you said. You would hang around them when they were sunbathing. It wasn’t right.”
“She was Claire’s friend. That was the only reason she was there. They grew up together. You know that. Didn’t you give her a friendly wave too?”
I didn’t like where this was going and needed to get him back on track. And I really needed him to put the gun down. I opened my arms wide as if surrendering, trusting.
“Are you going to shoot me Doug? You say you are innocent, and I believe you. I really do. But if you shoot me then you wouldn’t be innocent any more. You would be a cop killer. Then there would be no place to run too. What’s your plan? You say you didn’t do it and that you have proof. That’s great. Let me help you. If you shoot me and then find whoever took Claire, you still go to jail. Is that what you want?”
“I just want my daughter back.” He sniffed and lowered the gun slightly.
“Give me the gun and I won’t mention any of this. I’ll take you in and help you find a lawyer. Can you hear those sirens? Back up is on its way. We don’t have much time to keep this quiet.”
I had him. I could see it in his eyes. The light was fading, the fight was going out of him and he wanted to give up.
“Tell me about the proof you found, buddy. If it’s something that will exonerate you then I can make sure the DA gets it.”
That did it, he lowered the gun and fished something out of his pocket with his left hand. I considered rushing him and taking the gun but there was no point, I could end this without a fight.
He held his hand out and opened his palm to reveal a plain gold ring. A wedding ring, a man’s.
“Where did you get that?”
“It was in the sheets. In Claire’s bedroom. She must have put up a fight when he snatched her.”
I swallowed hard. The rain had stopped, and the clouds had moved letting the full moon light up the alley in a way that the flashlight could not. The slushy snow glowed all around us. I could hear the banshee wailing of police sirens getting closer. I took a step forward, “Let me see it.”
He took a step towards me and I smashed the Maglite into the side of his head, knocking him to the ground and kicked the gun out of his hand.
I grabbed at his hand and forced it open. It was empty. “Where’s the ring?” I screamed at him and punched him in the ribs. He wheezed but didn’t answer. I pulled of my thick gloves and slapped him across the face. “Where is the goddam ring?”
He groaned and muttered incomprehensibly. I dropped to my knees and searched in the snow around him. By hands burned as I scooped up piles of slush and sifted through like a prospector. Nothing.
“Doug. I need that evidence to prove that you are innocent. Help me find it.”
I staggered to my feet and pulled him up by the collar. I scooped up my gun and pointed it at him.
“In two minutes this place will be swarming with cops and we’ll probably never find that ring again. If you want to show the world you are innocent we need to find it now. Help me look.”
But he didn’t say anything. He stared at me, unblinking then looked down at my hands.
I pushed him back and placed the gun under his chin.
“You had your chance. Close your eyes.”
He just stared at me, his eyes dark with hatred. There was no fear in those eyes.
I stepped back and turned the gun on myself. I pulled the trigger and felt the bullet rip through my shoulder. A searing blast of hot pain almost caused me to drop the gun, but I had one more thing to do before my fellow officers arrived.
“Your fingerprints are all over this gun Doug. You grabbed it from me and shot me. I got it back and shot you in self-defence. And I’m the big hero for stopping a child killer before he strikes again.”
He muttered something as I levelled the gun at him.
“What was that?”
He whispered, “Is she alive?”
I smiled, “For now.”
He pushed at me and screamed, “Is Claire alive?”
I could hear the slamming of doors as my back up arrived. Time was up.
“Yes,” I shouted at him, “She’s alive, but not for much longer.” I shoved him hard. He landed on his back in the snow. I pointed the gun at his head but stopped when I saw him smiling at something over my shoulder.
I turned and looked up at silhouette of a young Asian boy looking down from the second floor window, and the red light of his phone blinking in the darkness.
Voices behind me yelled, “Freeze. Police.”