Read an Excerpt
"Officer down! Officer down! We need help."
Gunshots punctuated the frantic call that came through on Jeremiah Tucker's police radio. He listened closely to the dispatcher's response.
"There's a pile-up on I-35. Hold on. Help is on the way. We're routing someone there now."
Tuck's hands gripped the steering wheel. He'd known of the wreck, and had taken a detour on 12th Street through an Austin residential area. He was near the address, and unable to ignore a fellow officer in trouble. He swerved onto Springdale Road then sped down another street and whipped into a trailer park.
As a Texas Ranger, he didn't usually answer calls. His job was investigating crimes, but this was different. Every second counted and it sounded as if the officer was short on seconds.
He pulled up behind a police vehicle, both doors of which were flung wide. An officer knelt on the graveled road, half lying against the seat of his squad car, shouting into his radio.
The trailer faced the road. Two old rusty vans were parked to the right, and a dog pen was to the left, shaded by a large oak tree. An officer lay facedown in the middle of the overgrown yard.
Tuck jumped out and ran to the officer by the car. "What's the situation?"
The officer gasped for breath, one hand clutching the radio, the other clutching his upper arm as blood spurted through his fingers. Blood pooled on the gravel and his blood-covered gun lay on the seat. "We answered a domestic call. As we walked up to the trailer someone someone opened fire. I crawled back here, but Brian is hit bad. I can't get to him. The idiot keeps firing." He gasped another breath. "Where in the hell is
"They're on the way." Sirens blared faintly in the distance. "Take a deep breath and try to relax."
"I can't, man. Brian is "
"Let me take a look at your arm. Relax."
"Help Brian, please," the officer wheezed and slumped onto the seat.
Tuck checked his pulse and then the wound. A bullet had ripped straight through his upper arm, tearing open flesh, muscles and veins. Tuck's main concern was the bleeding. He reached for his handkerchief and tied it tight above the wound. Soon the bleeding stopped. He felt the officer would be okay. He'd just passed out from loss of blood.
The sirens were drawing closer, but weren't close enough. Tuck surveyed the scene and glimpsed a rifle poking out of one of the windows. The dog pen was made out of chicken wire and two pit bulls thrashed at the fence, testing the strength of the flimsy wire and barking aggressively at the downed officer in the yard. Any minute the structure was going to collapse like a cheap umbrella.
Tuck didn't have any time to waste. Bending low, he darted to his vehicle, all the while keeping an eye on the rifle and the dogs. The officer on the ground moaned and Tuck knew he was still alive, but he needed medical attention immediately.
Several shots exploded, kicking up dirt around Brian. to do something fast or the officer didn't stand a chance.
Without another thought, he zigzagged toward the house. A shot blasted near his head, knocking off his hat. The sound burned his ears, but Tuck didn't pause. He rolled and landed up against the cool aluminum siding on the front of the trailerthe rifle above his head. moonshine. He sucked in a controlling breath, knowing the guy couldn't get off a shot at that angle. Staring at Brian, Tuck debated how to get to him. Suddenly he heard loud voices, a woman's and a man's. He couldn't make out the words, but they were angry. The curse words he heard clearly.
Standing slowly, Tuck considered the situation. The rifle was to his right. He could jerk it out of the man's hands but before he could act, the gun was pulled inside. The voices grew louder, as did the cursing. The trailer shook from the impact of something thrown against a wall. Tingly sounds of glass breaking mingled with loud thuds.
Curtains covered the windows so Tuck couldn't see what was going on inside. The only uncovered opening was the small pane on the front door. Taking a deep breath, he eased up the concrete steps. The voices weren't close nowthey'd moved farther down the trailer. He took a quick peep through the pane and saw complete chaosbroken furniture, dishes, junk, clothes and clutter everywhere.
But no people.
Drawing back, an image registered in his mind. It couldn't be. He glanced again to make sure he wasn't seeing things. He wasn't. Among the clutter was a small boy, probably not even two years old, sitting in a corner chewing on a bag of dog food.
His heart sank, but he couldn't let himself think about the boy now. He had to get to the officer while he could. Leaping from the steps, he sprinted to Brian, grabbed him beneath his armpits and pulled him toward the trailer out of harm's way.
Agitated, the dogs threw themselves at the fence, barking, growling, wanting a piece of the officer. And a piece of Tuck. He kept one eye on them, praying the wire would continue to hold.
The sirens rolled closer.An ambulance and police cars roared up the street and came to a screeching halt, spewing gravel onto the trailer. Quickly, Tuck searched for the officer's pulse. It was faint, but it was there. He was still alive. Thank God. Tuck sagged against the trailer.
Two officers ran to his aid, guns drawn. Three more officers followed, crouching beside Tuck.
"What's happening?" an officer asked.
"Not sure. There's a man in the trailer with a rifle."
Tuck gulped a breath. "I heard two voices, a woman's and a man's. And there's a kid, too."
"This officer needs medical attention," Tuck told him. "Another officer by the squad car has been hit."
"Damn. We have to get him out of here. Has the shooter fired lately?"
"No. I think he's at the end of the trailer by the dog pen. This is your best chance to move Brian."
The officer motioned to the ambulance and it slowly backed in. "Hold on," he said to Brian. "We got you covered." He then shouted orders to the others.
Two other officers grabbed a gurney and had Brian loaded in seconds. The ambulance pulled away, stopping by the squad car to pick up the other wounded officer. Sirens blared full strength as the ambulance tore away.
Shots rumbled through the trailer then there was total silence. Even the dogs quieted down.
Officers wearing protective vests and carrying highpowered automatic weapons swarmed the trailer. One kicked in the door and they charged inside. Tuck followed. He had one goalto get the kid out.
In the narrow hallway a man and a woman lay in a pool of blood; blood also coated the walls. They appeared to be dead. Drug paraphernalia was scattered on the kitchen table. Tuck turned away and walked directly to the child.
The boy was dirty, his hair matted, his clothes stained and ripped. A telling smell emanated from him and Tuck knew he probably hadn't had his diaper changed in a while. The kid seemed oblivious to what was going on around him. He continued to chew on the small bag of dog food.
Tuck squatted down. "Hey, buddy, that's not for you." He reached to take it away and the boy grunted and bit his hand.
"That's not nice," Tuck said, and tried to take it again. The boy shook his head and held on with both arms. Tuck recognized the kid was hungry.
"Oh my God!" one of the officers said, staring at the kid.
"Keep an eye on him." Tuck stood and searched the cluttered cabinets for food. He found nothing but dishes, pots and pans, junk, beer, cigarettes and liquor.
"I'll be right back," he told the officer. "Don't take your eyes off him."
Tuck hurried to his car. He always kept peanut butter crackers in the glove compartment in case he didn't have time to eat. Going up the steps, he held open the door for the justice of the peace, who had just arrived on the scene. He would have to declare the people dead before they could be moved to the morgue. Another ambulance rolled up, waiting among the swarm of police cars. Neighbors gathered outside in the cool March breeze.
Tuck went back to the little boy, who was still clutching the bag, his slobber all over it. He squatted again, showed him the crackers and handed him one.
"I'll trade you, buddy. You "
His words trailed off as the boy grabbed the cracker and stuffed it into his mouth. Before Tuck could react, the kid snatched the other crackers out of his hand, poking them into his mouth as fast as he could. "He's starving," the officer remarked.
Tuck stood. "Yeah. And he's filthy. He's probably been neglected for a long time."
"Sergeant Dale Scofield," the officer said and stuck out his hand.
"Jeremiah Tucker, Texas Ranger." They shook. "I was passing through the area and heard the call."
"Thanks for the help."
The crime scene people had arrived and Tuck and the sergeant stepped over trash to get out of the way.
"What do you think happened here?" Tuck asked, although he already had a good idea.
"This is a rental property and my guess is the woman was turning tricks and the man was a dealer or a pimp. There's a naked man dead in the bedroom. Something went wrong that ticked off the shooter. Maybe he came home and found her with a guy she wasn't supposed to be with. Who knows? An investigation might turn up something, but we'll probably never know what really went down." The sergeant glanced at the boy. "What kind of mother brings a kid into this type of situation?"
"A very bad one," Tuck replied, watching the boy as he continued to wolf down the crackers. "Has Child Protective Services been called?"
"Yeah, someone is on the way. And the animal shelter's picking up the dogs."
Two paramedics pushed gurneys inside, waiting for the word to remove the bodies. Tuck reached down and picked up the boy. He figured the kid didn't need to see anything else. The boy swung at him with his fists, making angry sounds, but Tuck gathered him up to get him out of here. The kid was like a wild animal and Tuck had a hard time controlling him.
An officer ran to him with a box of doughnuts and a plastic cup of cola with a straw in it. "Sarge said to find all the food we could," he said. "This is it."
"Thanks," Tuck replied, trying to hold down the kid's hands. "Just put it on the hood of my car."
Tuck sat the boy on the hood, again noting his powerful odor. "Hey," he called to the officer. "See if there are some diapers in the trailer. He needs to be changed."
"Will do. And the name's Mike."
The kid snatched the drink and sucked greedily on the straw. Evidently he'd had sugary drinks before.
"Hey, buddy. Slow down." Tuck opened the halfempty box and wondered if the boy could eat a doughnut or if too much food all at once was good for him. He closed the box, deciding to just let him drink the cola. They'd have him in the E.R. soon enough.
The little boy's face was dirty and his matted hair greasy and long. Wary brown eyes glanced at him from time to time much as a starved animal wouldon guard in case Tuck tried to take the drink away.
Anger churned inside Tuck at what had been done to this little life. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the bodies being loaded out. How could a mother do this to her own child?
Mike came running back. "I couldn't find any diapers, but here are a couple of towels."
"Thanks." Tuck placed them on the hood. "I have diapers." A lady in her fifties walked up with a diaper bag slung over one shoulder. "I'm Opal Johnson, caseworker." She glanced at the kid. "So this is the little boy I was called about?"
"Yes, ma'am," Tuck replied, and introduced himself. Opal wrinkled her nose. "I assume that odor is coming from the baby." Without waiting for a reply, she plopped the bag on the hood and pulled out a diaper and baby wipes. "Let's see if we can't make him smell better."
Tuck spread out the towels and laid the boy down. He didn't object; he was too busy sucking on the straw. Tuck held the cup to one side so it wouldn't spill all over the kid.
Opal pulled the boy's pants down and undid his diaper. "Oh, no!"
"What?" Tuck glanced down and his stomach burned with fury. Urine and feces clung to the baby's butt in infected sores. It looked as if the baby's diaper hadn't been changed in days. He had to be in tremendous pain.
"Watch him for a moment, please," Opal said.
"What are you going to do?"
"Call for another ambulance." She reached for her cell in her pocket. "This baby needs medical attention immediately."
Tuck looked down at the boy, chewing on the straw. "It's going to be all right, buddy. I promise." He patted his chest and the boy slapped his hand away. "That's okay. You hit all you want. You deserve to hit someone."
"An ambulance is on the way," Opal said. "It was headed for the wreck on I-35, but all casualties have been picked up so it's coming here."
Tuck helped Opal bundle up the baby in the towels as an ambulance whizzed into the drive. Opal carried the boy to the paramedics, talking to them for a minute before running for her car.
The ambulance screeched away and Tuck hurried to Opal. "May I have your phone number? I'd like to follow up with the boy. See how he's doing."
She gave him a strange look but rattled off her number. Tuck reached for the pad in his pocket but realized he'd lost his pen, probably somewhere in the yard.
"Don't worry, Ranger Tucker," Opal said, starting her car. "I'll call you."
Tuck heaved a sigh as the vehicles disappeared out of sight. He was left standing alone while the crime unit members worked inside the trailer. Neighbors stood in their yards, talking and watching. Tuck's hat lay on the lawn and he walked over and picked it up.
The March wind ruffled his hair and he swiped a hand through it, staring at the bullet hole in the top of his hat. Damn. He'd bought the Stetson about two months ago and had just broken it in. Oh well, better a hat than his life.
He crawled into his car with a weariness he hadn't felt in a long time, the weariness of life and its cruelties. In his line of work he saw a lot of cruelty, but this particular incident hit close to his heart.