Ashes, Ashes . . .
by Julie Coulter Bellon
It was gut-check time.
Colby looked down the scope of his rifle, a bead of sweat running down his back. It felt like they’d been there for hours, but the afternoon sun still beating down on his head told him it’s only been an hour or so.
“Black, you got eyes on this guy?” his captain’s voice came over his earpiece.
“Affirmative.” Colby had hardly been able to take his eyes off the stringy-haired
guy with the gun who was pacing behind his hostage, shouting at her and anyone else within hearing distance. The shrill ringing of the phone on the wall behind them punctuated whatever the man was yelling at her. “He’s still pretty agitated. You think he’s going to answer that phone anytime soon?”
A shot rang out and the ringing abruptly stopped. He’d shot the phone. “I guess that answers that question,” Colby muttered to himself.
“Stand by for orders.” The captain sounded calm, but Colby knew him well enough to hear the thread of frustration. If they couldn’t make contact the entry team would be sent in, and it was game over for any type of negotiation.
Colby flexed his wrist before hunkering down once again. From the little they knew about this guy, he’d already killed two store clerks today and shot an officer in the thigh. When he’d barricaded himself in the house with his wife and two kids, the Hostage Negotiation Team that Colby was a part of had been called. In the hour that Colby had been there, the guy had shot out two windows and screamed obscenities at the cops outside as he fired his gun randomly. Colby always hoped the situation stayed controlled and they could get everyone out safely, but his instinct was telling him this one could get out of control fast with how erratic this guy was acting.
Colby adjusted his earpiece a bit, but didn’t miss a syllable of Claire Michaels checking in with the team. She was the main negotiator and was good at her job, but she was always a little anxious until they established contact with the hostage-taker. Once that line was set, then she calmed right down. Colby clenched his teeth together, hoping she could figure out a way to make contact so the patrolman using the bullhorn could stop. The man’s grating voice coming through the bullhorn was getting on his nerves.
Colby was grateful for a straight line of vision into the kitchen where the subject had holed up and he looked into the scope again just in time to see the man grab his wife by the hair and haul her against him, still screaming in her face. He waved his .40 caliber handgun in front of her before pointing it right at her temple. “Sir, he’s got the gun to his wife’s head,” he reported.
He kept a close watch, waiting for orders, but sucked in a breath when he saw a child around four years old enter the room right next to the hostage-taker. “Sir, we have two hostages confirmed. Woman and child.”
“Colby, the entry team’s about ready. They’ve got a flash-bang coming through the back as a diversion.” Colby heard his captain’s words, but knew it was the wrong move to make. This guy was on the edge and if they entered now, it would end badly, Colby could feel it. He squinted to see if he could get any better view, anything that would force the entry team to wait and give them a little longer to try to get him to negotiate. “Come on,” he said to himself. Nothing. “Sir, does Claire¾”
His sentence was cut off at the sound of gunfire and the scream that followed it.
“What’s going on in there? Anyone got eyes?” his captain barked through his earpiece.
Colby looked through the scope, dreading what he might see. Pushing his emotion down, he did a sweep of the small area. “Got a visual on both hostages,” Colby said, keeping his voice neutral. “Hostage down. Looks like the female was shot in the shoulder.” The woman was bloody, but conscious and talking to her husband while holding her arm. He was still yelling at her. Why isn’t that guy hoarse yet? Give the woman a break, Colby thought to himself.
The man moved over to the broken window and shoved his wife in front of him. “I’ll kill her, do you hear me?” As he screamed, Colby was struck by the fact that the woman seemed fairly calm as she stared at the men surrounding her home. Then he saw her hand reach down and push her child back. She’s protecting her kid. His stomach twisted. They had to get them out fast. The hostage-taker pulled the woman back and two shots came through the window toward the patrol cars, close enough to the uniform with the bullhorn that he crouched down quick.
“Do you see the child?” the captain asked.
He wasn’t in Colby’s line of vision anymore. “Negative. He was there a second ago, though.” Where had the kid gone? How much of this mess has he seen?
“The suspect isn’t making demands, he’s not talking, and he’s already shot four people today. He’s a convicted felon and isn’t going to come quietly. Negotiation isn’t an option, so we’re going with the entry team. Colby, if you get the shot, take it because he won’t hesitate to take our guys down and kill the hostages.”
Adrenaline ran through Colby at his captain’s words. No matter how long he’d been in the business, he never liked hearing that. But if it could save an innocent life, he would do what he could. He got ready and he didn’t have to wait long. The man was holding out his arm, pointing the gun at the woman. “Suspect is holding gun on hostage, he looks ready to shoot.”
He heard the flash bang at the back of the house. Colby knew it was coming and he drew in a deep breath, then expelled it in increments until his lungs were nearly empty. With the wife still held in front of him, the only shot Colby could take would be a head shot and that was always risky, but he didn’t have a choice. He could hear the yelling as the entry team came in and, as expected, the hostage-taker opened fire on them. “I have the shot,” he said with his last breath. He held his empty lungs and everything stopped. There was no sound, nothing to take away his focus, until he felt the trigger on the rifle release.
In the half a second it took to squeeze the trigger, the suspect moved his head forward and Colby knew instinctively that he hadn’t killed the man, only wounded him. “Suspect is wounded but not down.”
His words seemed drowned out by the gunshots from inside the house. One resonated with Colby. It’d come from a semi-automatic .40 caliber handgun¾he would bet his life on it. Another one followed soon after, but then all he could hear was the team yelling for him to put it down. Closing his eyes for a millisecond, he steeled himself for what he would see when he opened them and looked through the scope.
It was carnage. Blood was everywhere and both the suspect and hostage were down. From the way their bodies had fallen, it was obvious he’d shot her and then himself. But the worst was seeing the little boy standing there, looking down at his parents’ bodies, bewildered and crying. “Somebody get the kid,” Colby murmured. “Get the kid!”
Just as he said it, an officer scooped the boy up. Colby sank back against the shed he’d been perched on. He’d missed and because of his mistake a woman was dead, her son a witness. If only he’d been half a second sooner. He ground his teeth together and rubbed his eyes as if he could erase what he’d seen, what he’d done. Why?
His partner, Bart Guitterez, found him like that a few minutes later. “It’s not your fault, man. It was his. He wouldn’t negotiate and he knew he didn’t want to go back to prison. He was so hopped up on drugs, it would have been a mess no matter what we did. We tried.”
“I could have saved the hostage if he hadn’t moved. I missed the shot.” Standing up, Colby looked toward the house. “The kid was there. Saw the whole thing.”
“Yeah, I know.” Bart gave him a pat on the shoulder. “You did what you were supposed to do. Didn’t save everyone, but two kids are still alive. Remember that.”
Colby started toward the house, but Bart held him back. “I’m going in, Bart.”
“Why? They’re processing the scene. Let them do their job first.”
Colby knew Bart meant well, but he had to do it. He didn’t want the last image to be of the little boy standing over the bodies. Not that the scene inside would be much better. This case would live with him, he knew that, but he didn’t want it to haunt him. “I’m going in.”
Bart followed him inside. Shabby furnishings and filth covered most of the floor of the small house. Dirty diapers and used syringes lay out in the open. Colby walked through the room trying to imagine children living here when he could see animal feces mixed with the garbage. The smell was overpowering. He moved faster, but stayed out of the way as much as he could, until he was standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
Both bodies lay on the floor, but for some reason it gave Colby a tiny amount of satisfaction that the gunman had scratches on his face. No matter what, she’d fought him. She’d fought for her life. But his satisfaction quickly drained when he looked at her face, her eyes empty. She’d lost that fight and he hadn’t been able to protect her. With a sigh, he turned his back and went outside. Thankfully Bart hadn’t said a word.
The captain met them on the lawn. “What happened?” he asked quietly.
“The suspect moved just as I got the shot off,” Colby explained.
“First reports say you got him in the neck and nicked an artery. He would have bled to death anyway.”
“Not soon enough to save the hostage,” he said. Bitterness colored his tone.
“It was clean, you know that.” He touched Colby’s shoulder. “But you also know the drill. Make an appointment with the counselor.”
Colby nodded. “I’ll do that.” He glanced back at the house, wanting to get away, but knowing there was still a lot of clean-up to do.
The captain seemed to read his mind. “Why don’t you head back to the station and start the paperwork.” It wasn’t a question.
Colby gave him a grateful glance. “Yes, sir.”
The captain gave him a nod before heading to the command center, and Colby could see Claire approaching. Bart headed her off and he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could imagine and he didn’t want anyone’s sympathy right now. He quickly headed for the car.
Claire was faster, though, and intercepted him. “You okay?”
“Fine,” he ground out. He opened his trunk and started putting his gear away.
She tilted her head to try and make him meet her eyes. “It wasn’t your fault this went south. It was a team effort that didn’t work. You know that. The guy wouldn’t talk. He was on the edge, high on drugs. He probably planned this as a murder/suicide. There wasn’t much we could do.”
“I had an opportunity, Claire, and I blew it.” The image of the kid rose in his mind, but he pushed it back. “Any news on the other kid? I thought there were two.” He didn’t really want to know, but deep inside he knew he had to ask.
“Safe and sound in a closet.”
“What’s going to happen to them? That kid who witnessed the shooting will need counseling.” A lot of it.
“You know how this will go as well as I do.” Claire’s voice was soft. “The Department of Children and Families will do all they can making sure the kids are safe and taken care of. Hopefully they have some family who can take them in.”
Colby slammed the trunk closed. “Yeah. I hope so.”
She gave him a hug and he held her for a moment. There was a time when he thought his feelings for her were more than a big brother, but that had passed. They were family, the things they’d been through making them closer than some brothers and sisters he knew, and he valued that. But right now he needed to be alone. “I’m heading back to the station to get the paperwork started.” His voice was gruff, but he knew Claire understood.
She pulled back and gave him a little smile. “Okay. I’m sure we won’t be far behind you. But take the advice you’re always telling us and don’t do anything on an empty stomach.”
Colby shielded his eyes from the sun, knowing her teasing was good-natured. “Hey, it’s a proven fact people work better when they’re fed. I’ll get us some takeout just in case.”
Claire chuckled. “You and your comfort food. Now if you start cleaning the station or baking, I’m going to know you’re really stressed out.”
“I never should have told you that,” Colby said. “Everyone has their stress relief. And deep down you know you like it.”
She held up her hands in surrender. “You’re right. No one makes homemade cinnamon rolls like you. And you can come over and clean my house anytime. Just don’t try to cook anything. Baking is definitely your specialty.”
He gave her a grim smile before he opened his car door and slid behind the wheel. “See you in a few.”
He could feel her eyes on him as he wove in between the emergency vehicles that surrounded the house. It was obvious she was more worried about him than she let on. He appreciated her concern, but he needed to deal with this on his own. It was that kid witnessing it all that was affecting him the most. All that innocence lost. His life would never be the same after seeing something like that.
As soon as Colby was clear of anyone he knew, or anyone who might see, he slammed his fist into the steering wheel, again and again, until his hand hurt so much he had to stop. It felt good to release a bit. Even though his head knew it was the nature of the business¾that they couldn’t save everyone, but his heart was in a different place right now.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, he pressed on the gas pedal. He needed to compartmentalize what had happened and get it out of his head. The sooner he could get his mind involved in something else, the better. And he’d make that appointment with the police psychologist. Couldn’t hurt.
He pulled into the parking lot of the station, but didn’t get out of the car. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. In and out. In and out. He was going to be okay. His thoughts turned back to the little boy from the house and knew he wanted to follow-up, make sure the kid got taken care of. He couldn’t do that for every case, but in this instance, he knew he needed to for his own peace of mind.
Feeling a bit better, he got out and went inside. The paperwork was waiting.