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"Get your skinny butt out here right now or I'm gonna start shootin'."
Liz Gibson snatched the cellular telephone off the table in front of her and spoke soothingly into it. "Relax, Bobby Joe. Everything's going to work out fine, if we all keep our cool here."
Four hours ago, when she'd first made contact with him, Bobby Joe Watson had been drunk as a skunk. He was obviously sobering up. Liz prayed he'd be more rational now, but the reality of his situation could hit him, and then
While she spoke, Captain Leo started buckling the bottom strap on Liz's Kevlar vest. Next he picked up the black wind-breaker with Shelby County Police Negotiator stenciled in white across the back. Liz slipped her free arm into the left sleeve, then switched the telephone to her left hand so she could shrug into the right.
"Now, woman. I been telling you I ain't lettin' nobody go until you come out here and get 'em personally."
"Bobby Joe, I'm just a grunt. I had to do some fast talking to get my captain to let me come this far. He's only giving permission because you're an old friend."
"Friend, my ass. I'm startin' to lose my temper, Miss High-and-Mighty Senior Class President." His voice went low and guttural. "You all wouldn't want me to lose my temper, now, would you?"
Liz's stomach gave a lurch with the change in his tone. She caught her breath and said quickly, "I'm coming right this minute. Why don't you walk on out of the house with Sally Jean and Marlene? I promise nobody's going to hurt you."
"Yeah? Then how come I see a whole battalion of those TACT bastards poking automatic weapons out from behind half the trees in the front yard? Huh? You tell me that." His voicerose dangerously.
Liz heard the rising panic in his tone, and glanced at Captain Leo. He nodded. He'd heard it, too.
She forced herself to sound calm and relaxed. "Well, Lord, Bobby Joe, they're not about to shoot me, now are they? You'll be safe with me. Just put down your weapon and come on out."
"Listen, woman, I'm the one in control here. I tell you what to do, you don't tell me a goddamn thing, you hear? And ain't no bitch gonna kick me out of my own house what I paid rent on, try to divorce me and take my baby girl away from me, you got that? I have her now, and I ain't leaving."
"I know you love Sally Jean, and she loves you ." Liz used the child's name as often as possible. The little girl had to remain an individual in her father's eyes, not merely a possession. Liz hadn't dared mention his wife, Marlene, since their first contact. Her name sent Bobby Joe into paroxysms of cold rage.
"I send Sally Jean out, y'all won't never let me see her again."
"Of course you'll see Sally Jean again, Bobby Joe." Through bars, if I have my way. The judge who'd granted the man bond after he was arrested for landing both his wife and daughter in the hospital should be impeached.
Liz prayed Bobby Joe didn't realize how many additional felony charges he'd accrued with this home invasion and kidnapping. She prayed he wouldn't add murder to the list.
"You're Sally Jean's daddy. We have to start thinking what's best for her. Little girls think their daddies are heroes. Be her hero. You're a good daddy, Bobby Joe."
"Damn straight I am!"
In the background, Liz heard the muffled cries of a child, and a moment later, the sound of a palm striking flesh, followed by a howl of pain. "Hush up, Sally Jean," Bobby Joe snapped. "I'm busy here."
Some good daddy! This situation was more proof that restraining orders against abusive spouses didn't work. Men like Bobby Joe believed they owned their families. The most dangerous time came when wives finally broke free and started to turn their lives around. Men like Bobby Joe couldn't bear that. They wanted their families back under their thumbs. If they couldn't manage that, then they wanted them dead.
Thank God Marlene's next-door neighbor in this working-class Memphis neighborhood had seen Bobby Joe invade the little house, and had called the police. If officers had not been on the scene quickly, Bobby Joe might have taken both his wife and daughter at gunpoint and disappeared with them. With a squad car blocking the driveway, however, he had barricaded himself inside with an arsenal.
On some level he must know he couldn't stay there forever, and that the police would never simply let him walk away with his wife and child.
Liz wanted him to choose surrender rather than family annihilation. At this point, she thought he was considering her offer, and hoped fervently she was reading him right.
She closed her eyes tightly, hearing that slap. Not a sound she'd ever mistake. She'd heard it too many times, when the slap had come from her momma and the howl had risen inside herself. "Bobby Joe? Listen to me. I'll walk halfway up the driveway"
"No! You come right up on the front porch. You hold your hands out to the side, away from you with your palms out, so I'll know you ain't carrying no gun. You ring the bell, then I'll open up and let 'em out. You got that?"
Captain Leo growled softly in the background and whispered, "Wants another hostage. He'll try to drag you inside. Thinks having a cop at his mercy will give him more leverage."
Liz nodded. That might be a good sign. Bobby Joe wasn't the first hostage-taker to dream up that one. It meant he still hadn't decided whether to surrender, or to kill his wife and childand then himselfrather than allow them a life without him.
She infused her voice with a trace of regret. "They won't let me do that, Bobby Joe. I'll have to wait in the driveway."
"Bobby Joe, you got to give me something I can work with to get you out of this mess. A gesture of good faith. If you'd just come on out with them Nobody's been hurt yet"
"Oh, that right?" The man's laughter sent a chill up Liz's backbone. The phone went dead.
Liz froze, then turned to Captain Leo. He looked grim.
"I should have yanked you off this negotiation the minute that bastard recognized your voice, Liz. The taker is never supposed to know the negotiator. That's procedure."
"Captain, there were three thousand kids in my high school. I don't even remember Bobby Joe's face, much less his name. How could I possibly know he'd recognize my voice from way back then?"
"Obviously because you were already running your mouth." Leo looked closely at her. "You scared?"
For a moment Liz considered lying, then said, "I'm petrified. What if I blow it? There's an eight-year-old girl and a woman in that house with a control freak who gets his jollies putting them both in the hospital on a regular basis. And from what the neighbor said, he's got an arsenal."
"Unless he's got armor-piercing shells, he's not going through that Kevlar, Liz."
"I don't have any Kevlar between my eyes."
"You want to give it up?"
"No. I've got to try. Maybe he'll hold up his end of the bargain."
"If the TACT guys get a clear shot at him "
"You know I'm not supposed to know that." She managed a grin and a thumbs-up, and opened the door of the mobile command post that had been set up on the country road at the end of Bobby Joe Watson's gravel drive. Suddenly that drive looked a million miles long.
The TACT team was in position, with weapons pointed at the silent cottage, its phones and electricity disabled.
The only communication Bobby Joe had with the outside world was through the phone they'd thrown him at the start of the siege. It was keyed to talk only to Liz's phone. She had no idea what the team's orders were. Her ignorance was critical. Her voice couldn't betray what she didn't know.
But it gave her an additional sense of unease. She could die just as easily from friendly fire as from Bobby Joe Watson's rifle, if she accidentally "crossed the tube" and walked into the sniper's line of fire as he pulled the trigger.
She held the phone out in her left hand so Bobby Joe could see it. What he couldn't see was the microphone in her right ear that relayed instructions from Captain Leo.
Liz's heart banged against her ribs, and bile threatened to choke her. She badly needed to go to the bathroom. All those Kegel exercises she'd done had better pay off now, because she didn't have time to drop her drawers in the azalea bushes. Not in front of the TACT team or the television trucks. The latter might be out of range of bullets, but she definitely wasn' t out of range of their long-distance lenses. She fought down a hysterical giggle.
She walked slowly up the drive into the lengthening shadows. She'd been negotiating with Bobby Joe for four hours now, ever since the neighbor had called 911 to report that he had come back home to convince Marlene not to divorce him.
That he'd recognized Liz's voice from high school had been bad luck, particularly when he'd refused to change negotiators. Personal history could have a deadly effect on a negotiation. Captain Leo had once allowed a taker's preacher to speak to him. After the minister called down the wrath of God on the guy and said he'd roast in hell for eternity, Captain Leo had physically yanked him away from the microphone. On that occasion, Liz had spent the next twenty-two hours trying to talk the taker into giving up. She had, but it had been close.
Never under ordinary circumstances would a negotiator have walked into plain view, Kevlar or not. She was supposed to be a faceless, nameless voice on a line. The sympathetic everyman, or in this case, everywoman.
But here she was, walking unarmed up a driveway toward an unstable man with a rifle. Liz regularly ran five miles with little effort, yet now she was panting after twenty yards. She could smell her own sweat mingled with the metallic stench of the Kevlar. The vest pressed on her shoulder blades. The steel pad in the center, over her heart, felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds. She shrugged, but didn't dare put her hands down to adjust the vest.
"Okay, Bobby Joe, I'm here. Send them out," she called.
For a long moment nothing happened, then the front door opened barely enough for the thin child to slip through. The door shut quickly behind her, but not before the fading light glinted off the barrel of a rifle.
Uncertain, the girl stood on the porch, her eyes on her ragged sneakers. Despite the cold, she wore only a thin T-shirt and grimy jeans two sizes too big. Her dirty face was streaked with tears.
"Come on, Sally Jean, honey," Liz said softly. "It's all right, baby girl. Just come on down the steps to Liz." She held out her arms. The child moved hesitantly down the porch steps.
Where was Marlene? Liz glanced at the door. She hadn't heard a word from the woman in over an hour.
She had a bad feeling about this. It was imperative that she get the kid to safety, then go back for Marlene. If she was alive.
The child looked up at her with terrified eyes and began to stumble toward her. Liz started to kneel to gather her up when she caught movement from the corner of her eye.
The door opened again. Marlene?
No! God. The rifle. Bobby Joe was going to shoot her. As she stared, openmouthed, the barrel of the gun swung across and down.
He was aiming at Sally Jean! His own daughter! He'd sworn he'd kill her before he'd let her go. Liz had failed. He'd chosen to kill them all rather than surrender.
Liz swept the child into her arms and spun to shield her with her own body.
Sally Jean screamed and fought, arms and legs flailing, as Liz ran crookedly toward the command post.
She felt the first impact in the middle of her back before she heard the soprano ping of the rifle shot.
As she fell forward, two other thuds hit her between the shoulder blades. Worse than a mule kick. Much worse.
No breath. She'd crush the child .
Another ping. Pain seared her hip.
And all hell broke loose. As she went down on top of Sally Jean, she heard the thuds of running boots, the shouts of the TACT squad, a barrage of gunfire.
Hands grabbed her under her armpits, swept the child away from her, dragged her toward the command post, hauled her up the steps and dropped her facedown on the floor.
Captain Leo was talking to someone. She heard his voice through a halo of pain. She managed to turn her head to stare up into the grizzled face of Bill Lansing, head of TACT.
"Is she okay?" Her own voice sounded strangled.
"The kid? Yeah."
"Am I dying?"
He laughed at her. Actually laughed, the bastard!
"Not unless one of your broken ribs punctured a lung." Then he was gone and Captain Leo took his place. Her leg felt warm and wet.
"Three in the back of the vest, Liz."
"I'm bleeding, I can feel it."
"Oh, yeah. That. Flesh wound. Graze. Couple of inches over and you'd have a brand-new asshole." He grasped her hand hard. "If you had to act like a goddamn hero, couldn't you have managed it without getting shot in the butt in front of a dozen television cameras?"
Six weeks later Liz shifted carefully on the wooden chair in the Cold Case interrogation room. Her rear end could still send a shock of pain through her if she moved the wrong way.
"Want to tell me about it?" Liz asked the obviously terrified young man who sat across the beat-up table. She could tell he longed to talk. He was barely out of his teens. He'd been seventeen when he'd shot one of his friends.
He'd been sitting in the "perp seat" for over two hours now. The front two legs had been shortened an inch and a half so that the chair canted slightly forward. Suspects were uncomfortable without knowing precisely why.
Liz kept her voice soft, gentle and understanding. One thing she'd learned from her negotiator's training was that the key to getting a suspect to confess or a taker to give up was to exude empathy.
She'd left Leroy alone for thirty minutes while he ate his burger and drank his cola. Through the two-way mirror she'd watched him finish the food, lay his head on the table and fall asleep.
"Gotcha!" she'd whispered. Suspects frequently fell asleep the moment they were left alone, as though suddenly released from the tension of trying to get away with whatever crime they'd committed. Now, seated once more on the other side of the table, she leaned forward and regarded him sadly.