Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Phillips's car pulled up in front of the house just before three in the morning. He'd seen the lights a block and a half away: at least a dozen police cruisers, a couple fire crew vehicles, three ambulances. The flashing of the red and blue and white lights seemed at odds with the hush that filled the air like a presence. There were no shouts, no barked orders, no casual laughs - if anyone spoke it was in a low, somber tone.

A cop lifted the band of yellow tape that fenced off an impromptu lot in the street and Phillips rolled under, tires hissing softly on the rain-soaked road. He slowed to a stop, pulled the emergency brake, killed the lights and the engine, and sat for a long minute observing the scene.

Quiet neighborhood. Neat, but not nice - the houses were probably thirty years old, inhabited by a third or fourth generation of owner. Peeling paint. Phillips saw at least one car parked in a driveway that he felt pretty sure wouldn't start or run. A couple of sun-faded kids' toys in yards. But grass was cut, hedges trimmed; the curtains in most of the houses might have been Wal-Mart, but at they were clean and cared for. The people who lived here would be blue-collar workers and housewives; maybe a manager-level here and there but for the most part men and women who'd been working the same jobs for a long time and would keep working them until they retired or were laid off when the company shut down.

Phillips saw the standard audience - the neighbors standing out in their yards, on the sidewalks, or behind screened front doors. Curious, and a little frightened. Not sure what was going on, why the somber circus of police presence - usually just a spectacle on tv or in the movies - had suddenly materialized for real right across the street from their beds and living rooms and kitchens. He scanned the faces reflexively, looking for anything out of the ordinary, an out-of-place look he wouldn't expect to see among the apprehensive neighbors roused from their beds by the disruption. When he saw nothing that aroused his attention he sighed and climbed out of the car.

It was cold. The day had been muggy and warm, full with the promise of rain and storm, and it had arrived right after dark in a wall of wind and thunder and lightning. Crews were out around town fixing downed power lines and blinking stop lights, and leaves decaled the streets and sidewalks everywhere. The air was still humid but it was the bite of the air after a cold front instead of the heavy, spongy moisture that had blanketed the city for the last couple of weeks, making shirts stick sweatily to chests and backs. Fall soon, Phillips thought. He walked to the sidewalk and toward the concrete path that led up to the small patio and front door of the house, hanging his badge on his coat pocket. Hernandez was at the juncture of the walkway and the sidewalk; she gave him a somber look and gestured towards the house.

"He's already in there," she said. He studied the house for a moment, then turned to her.

"That bad?" he asked. He could usually count on Hernandez to greet him with some sort of ribbing, a twinkle in her dark eyes.

She didn't reply. She opened her mouth and as if to say something, then cut herself off as if she weren't sure she'd be able to get it out. Instead she just nodded and turned away as if she didn't want him to see her lose it.

Phillips put a reassuring hand on her shoulder for a second, then walked up towards the door.

As he approached he surveyed the scene. Two cars in the driveway. Three small windows to the right of the front door - probably bedrooms, lights shining behind drawn curtains. A large picture window to the left, between door and garage. The venetian blinds inside the window were tilted open so Philips could see right in - the crowd of police, the cheap furniture, the smear of red on the wall. He pulled the screen door open and stepped inside and said,

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