Below is chapter 1 of the novel I’m currently querying.
Thanks for reading.
CHILDREN OF CHICAGO
“You’re going to get blood on your coffee cup, Detective.”
“That hasn’t happened yet, Officer Guerrero,” Lauren said, digging her free hand in her jacket searching for a pair of plastic gloves.
He smiled, shook his head and moved to pull back the police caution tape to let her through. She waved him away. “Thanks, I got it,” she said stepping onto the crime scene.
People gathered at the edges, peeking out of windows, standing on their front porches, and sitting on their front steps.
She dug in her messenger bag and pulled out a pair of plastic gloves. She slipped one on the fingertips of her left hand and pulled the opening back with her teeth. Even though Lauren had been on the force a short time compared to her colleagues she had been at enough homicide scenes already to make her feel seasoned.
Officer Guerrero gave a single dry laugh as he observed her balancing her coffee cup. She switched the cup to her other hand and pulled on the other glove.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that.”
It wasn’t sanitary, but it was effective. “Didn’t even spill a drop. Now, what the hell happened here?”
“Male, 14-year-old wounded in the foot taken to University of Chicago Hospital. The other, 18-year-old male shot in the hip taken to Stroger.”
“And him?” Lauren squat down to the mass on the street, covered in a white sheet. “Let’s see who the ambulance is taking for a ride with its lights off.” With her thumb and forefinger, she pinched the edge of the white sheet and lifted it just a few inches, so that the crowd standing behind her could not see.
“You were the first on the scene?” She felt the presence of Guerrero hovering over her.
“Me, my partner, and these guys on the floor. We stopped, came out here but then she had to go assess the situation.”
“Assess the situation?” She looked up at him. “One dead. Two injured. What else was there to assess?”
“As soon as we parked some people came out. Started recording with their phones. Shouting at us. You know…”
“Shouting at you? Why?”
“Really detective?” It took a minute to connect what he was saying. Distrust of the police force was at its peak. For good reason.
“Right, forget it.”
She scanned the body. Gray long-sleeved sweater. Blue jeans. White athletic shoes. He was young, like many of them were.
“This one was found here,” Guerrero said. “Four or five gunshots that I could see.”
“Age? Name? Gang affiliation? Anything?” She asked.“Nothing confirmed yet.”
The boy on the ground looked up towards something she couldn’t see. Her eyes moved back down the body.”
“Across the street. Behind you. Guy in the Bears jersey. Says his kid was looking out the window when it happened.”
It smelled of gun smoke and iron and something else she could not place. Lauren’s eyes stopped at the boy’s hands. There was a substance covering some of his fingertips, darkening his nails.
“This look like paint to you?”
Guerrero stepped forward, pulled out a small flashlight and pointed it.
It was then that Lauren saw it. Paint peeking out from beneath the sheet. She stood up and backed away, taking in the position of the body. “That’s spray paint. It’s fresh.” She took another step back, and now saw the blue and gold markings that stretched beyond the position of the boy.
“They’re tagging up the street now I see,” she said.
“Billboards and garage doors aren’t enough for them I guess,” Guerrero said.
“Look in his bag. Let me know if you find the spray cans,” she removed her plastic gloves and put them back in her bag. “What did the witness say?”
“Just a large group of people standing here one minute. Shots, and then these guys on the ground the next.”
She raised her coffee cup to her lips. It was her fifth cup that day. She took in the crowd. More people had gathered just outside of the police barrier. A man in faded blue jogging pants and a navy Bears jersey stood beside what looked like his son, a man younger than him, taller than him, wearing a white t-shirt, basketball shorts, socks and black sandals. He was skinny, all arms and thin legs.
“That our witness?” She motioned in their direction with her cup.
Lauren stepped over the police tape and approached them. Before she could ask them anything the man said “I want him to see what happens out here, so he knows this is why I make sure he’s always in the house.”
“Did you know any of them?” She addressed both.
The young man shook his head no first.
“I walk my son to school every day. I take lunch late in the day so I can leave and be there at the door of his school right before he gets out. I then walk him home back from school each day. If he’s not at school, he’s in the house.”
Lauren removed a small black notebook and pencil from her bag. “Were any of them in school with you?”
Again, the boy shook his head no. Lauren looked through the corner of her eye, there were people on either side of her now. The crowds were growing. Both Officer Guerrero and his partner were stationed at the edges of the crime scene. Shouts of anger rising. Accusing officers of not patrolling enough. Not showing up fast enough. Not caring enough.
No one seemed sure of what happened. In the distance the rising and fading howl from emergency vehicles approached. Two cruisers had just parked, another was pulling onto the street, and the sirens continued to signal their approach.
Many of those in the crowd had their faces turned downward toward a phone in their hand. Their cheeks, noses, and foreheads aglow in the light of their screens. She sensed the boy’s hesitation to speak. There were plenty of people on the street now, and speaking to law enforcement, for many, carried a risk.
“Did you want to give me your name?”
The boy looked to his father.
“Johnny Sharkey. My son’s Johnny also. Junior.”
“They were out there on that corner. I was in the living room on my laptop when I heard a couple of shots,” Johnny Jr. spoke softly. “I looked out the window and saw him on the ground already. He really wasn’t moving. Saw a few other guys running off.”
“I don’t even know,” he shifted his weight from leg to another.
“Did you hear anything before the shots? Shouting? People fighting.”
He shook his head. “It was quiet. That’s all I saw.”
She put her notebook and pencil away. “I’m sorry you and your son have to see this.”
Johnny Sr. placed an arm around his son.
Lauren handed him her card and told him to call her if he remembered anything else.
As she turned her back to return to the scene the father shouted “I’m sorry any of us have to see this, day after day, after day!”
There was nothing she could offer. There were no reassurances that this would end tonight or any night. She didn’t even bother turning around because there was no comfort she could give to him, his boy or this community. Not yet anyway. Right now, there was no saying ‘This will never happen here again,’ because it would, like it happened last week and the week before that.
Would they catch the shooter? She hoped, and it’s what kept her up at night, sipping on cold, bitter coffee so much her doctor told her if she didn’t take a break from it she would burn a hole in her esophagus, her own stomach acid eating her alive. But she didn’t stop drinking coffee, because sleep was something that got in her way of all of this. Rest wasn’t easy to find because she knew that these guiltless murderers would do it again. Chances of finding them, and arresting them for their crime was slim, but still she tried. She had to try. She had to set things right.
“They’re getting younger and younger,” a gruff voice said just behind her.
“Shouldn’t you be planning your retirement party?” She asked.
“Shouldn’t you be planning a funeral?”
“Everything’s ready, Washington,” she took another sip. “Just be on time.”
For the first time Lauren forced herself to really look at him, to take in the gray hair that had spread across his mustache and beard of her partner. His sunken eyes, his stooped posture. Washington looked tired and she hated knowing that it was almost time for him to go.
“I’m always on time. You need to worry about you, kid. You didn’t have to come out here, you know that. You should take it easy,” he said.
She couldn’t take it easy, no matter how much people tried to force her, even as she mourned. There was so much work to do that resting seemed like an impossibility. If anyone needed to rest it was Washington, not her.
She ignored him.
“I’m going to tell you again,” he pointed at her coffee, “all that coffee can’t be good for you.”
“See, it’s not good for you if you load it up with sugar and cream and all that crap those chains coffee shops like to get you addicted on. I told you Washington, real coffee doesn’t need that junk. It just masks the flavor of the coffee bean.”
“What about Cuban coffee? That’s pretty sweet?”
“Café con leche? Fine, depends where you get it.”
They watched as two officers placed small yellow numbered tents at various points on the street, marking where bullets fell. Shell casings glinted under the street light.
“Thirteen, I counted them,” he said.
“Dammit!” Someone yelled across the street. A woman arrived to find her parked white Buick Lacrosse had its back window shot out.
“Fourteen. Didn’t see that one from here.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this…” he started.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she thought of the worst case scenario and knew it would destroy her.
“But you already know,” he said.
If Lauren could cover her ears and shut everyone out right now she would. She had been told by their sergeant just before arriving at this scene that Detective Washington would be retiring. He had put off his retirement an entire year to train her. It was time for him to move on.
“You’ll be fine.”
Lauren laughed to herself. “I’m not exactly everyone’s favorite around here.”
“Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “I found my chair out in the parking lot this morning.”
“They did that again? Look, fine.” He placed a hand on his hip. “You’re not exactly a lot of people’s favorite around here. They don’t like you because you’re young…”
“Now,” Washington put a hand up. “You’ve got to let that go. He asked you about your sister one time…”
“And if he asks again?” She rubbed the back of her neck.
“Ignore him, Medina. The case is cold.”
“And the rest of them?”
He punctuated each syllable. “Ignore them.”
Lauren let out a groan. Washington was right.
Alderman Rosa approached. “What’s going on in my ward?” It sounded like an attack.
“Alderman, you and your community would be the best to answer that,” Washington said.
Alderman Rosa removed his glasses and wiped them on the bottom of his shirt. “That’s bullshit and you know that.”
“I know you’re concerned and all Rosa but this is an active crime scene, Washington said.
“You should get that tagging cleaned up,” Lauren pointed to the ground.
“Four, detective,” Rosa flashed four fingers inches from Washington’s face. “Four shootings this past week. How are you going to fix this?”
“Fix this?” Lauren interrupted. “We’re here and we’re going to do everything we can to solve this crime and the others but community policing, Rosa. Your people have to be proactive and vigilant.”
“That’s what you said at the last shooting and the shooting before that.”
“It’s what I told you before, Rosa,” Washington said. “Community policing. Block clubs. Neighbors talking to neighbors. We’ve got a gang tactical team already assigned to this ward, but if the community is not talking, if people aren’t telling us what’s going on, then you’re going to keep seeing us. Well, not us, her and her new partner because starting Friday I am retired.”
“Are you kidding me? Washington, you’ve worked in our ward for years.” Alderman Rosa looked from Washington to Medina. “Figure this out and make it stop,” he said pointing over to the body on the ground before stomping off towards a collection of news reporters and cameras that were interviewing people.
“He’s an asshole” she said under her breath, just loud enough for Washington to hear. “And I don’t forgive you for leaving me alone to deal with all of this.”
“Oh, you won’t be alone. You’ll have Van to deal with.”
Lauren felt her phone vibrating in her back pocket. Washington pulled his out as well. Both were being summoned to another location.
It was a warm late summer day in Chicago, which meant disputes continued to brew on the streets.
“Van’s an asshole, and he hates me.”
“Van hates everybody.”
While Washington asked her if she needed anything in the morning Lauren watched as paramedics wheeled a stretcher over to the young man on the ground. She wondered if any of the people in the crowd were his family or friends. As he was lifted and placed on the stretcher she got a better look at the graffiti on the street where the body has just been. It spelled out something.
“What does that say?” She said, cutting off Washington as he said he and his wife would be more than happy to meet her in the morning at the funeral home.
She went to read the words but her breath was trapped in her throat. She backed away. “Pied Piper.” She forced herself to say it.
“What the hell is that?” Washington asked.
She coughed, took a sip of her coffee to clear her throat and then said what she thought would make sense. “Don’t know. Maybe some new tagger’s name?”
The back door of the ambulance slammed shut and the driver gave her a wave, signaling their departure. The crowd began to thin, and many of the people who were there upon her arrival were gone, except the young man in the basketball shorts. Johnny Jr. remained standing in the same spot. His father was now gone. He likely went inside to get some sleep. Proof that even the most vigilant parent in this city isn’t watching their child at all moments.
They walked back to the car. Lauren slowed her pace to match Washington’s movements. It too him longer to move, longer to get his thoughts out and longer to ease into the passenger seat of the car.
“I should’ve asked sooner, but I think you should say something tomorrow,” Lauren said.
“I’ll tell people how great it was to work with your dad for over 20 years. He was the greatest partner I could ask for.”
“You don’t have to lie. I’m the greatest partner you’ve had,” she said as she pulled on her seatbelt. She took a deep breath. “I’m only going to say it once and just now and I don’t want to be reminded that I’m saying this, but I may even miss you, a little bit.”
Washington laughed. “Medina! Look at you showing emotion and everything. I promised your dad I’d watch after you, make sure you got settled into the job. I’m glad I was able to at least keep that promise.”
The dashboard illuminated when she turned the car on. The radio blared a weather report warning of early morning showers sure to jam rush hour traffic.
Washington reached over and changed the station. Spanish music filled the car. A high tempo followed by a brilliant chorus.
“You’re really serious about learning Spanish then?” She asked, imagining him retired and settled in a little Mexican beach town away from all of this madness.
“I’ll even order my next coffee in Spanish the next time you take me to that Puerto Rican place you like so much.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
As Lauren placed the car in drive she took one more look at the scene. Johnny Jr. stood right beside the police caution tape, taking in the graffiti. She wondered why that tagger name, Pied Piper. Maybe it was a coincidence.
It was as if Johnny Jr. knew he was being watched. He raised his head and looked directly at her. Their eyes met.
Right then she felt her throat close. Her chest ached. Now she knew it wasn’t a coincidence. The Pied Piper was back.