By Faye Kellerman
Warner Books Copyright © 2003 Faye Kellerman
All right reserved. ISBN: 0446531316
I saw him frantically waving the white flag, a man admitting defeat. As I pulled the cruiser into one of the alley's parking spaces, blocking a silver Mercedes S500, I realized that the banner was, in fact, a napkin. He wore a solid wall of white, the hem of a long, stained apron brushing his white jeans midshin. Though it was night, I could see a face covered with moisture. Not a surprise because the air was a chilly mist: typical May-gloom weather in L.A. I radioed my whereabouts to the dispatcher and got out, my right hand on my baton, the other swinging freely at my side. The alley stank of garbage, the odor emanating from the trash bins behind the restaurant. The flies, normally shy in the dark, were having a field day.
The rear area of The Tango was illuminated by a strong yellow spotlight above the back door. The man in white was short, five-seven at the most, with a rough, tawny complexion, a black mustache, and hands flapping randomly. He was agitated, talking bullet-speed Spanish. I picked up a few words, but didn't ask him to stop and translate, because I heard the noise myself-the highpitched wails of a baby.
"Where?" I yelled over his words. "Dónde?"
"Aquí, aquí!" He was pointing to an army-green Dumpster filled to the brim with blue plastic refuse bags.
"Call 911." I ran to the site and pulled out several bags, tearing one open and exposing myself to a slop of wilted salad greens, mushy vegetables, and golf balls of gray meat and congealed fat. As I sifted through the trash, my clean, pressed uniform and I became performance art, the deep blue cloth soaking up the oils and stains of previously pricey edibles. "I need help! Necesito ayuda! Ahorita."
"Sí, sí!" He dashed back inside.
The crying was getting louder and that was good, but there was still no sign of the wail's origin. My heart was slamming against my chest as I sorted through the top layer of bags. The bin was deep. I needed to jump inside to remove all the bags, but I didn't want to step on anything until I had checked it out. Three men came running out of the back door.
"Escalera!"-a ladder-I barked. "Yo necisito una escalera."
One went back inside, the other two began pulling out bags.
"Careful, careful!" I screamed. "I don't know where it is!" I used the word "it" because it could have been a thrown-away kitten. When agitated, felines sound like babies. But all of us knew it wasn't a cat.
Finally, the ladder appeared and I scurried up the steps, gingerly removing enough bags until I could see the bottom, a disc of dirty metal under the beam of my flashlight. I went over legs first and, holding the rim with my hands, lowered myself to the bottom. I picked a bag at random, checked inside, then hoisted it over the top when I satisfied myself that it didn't contain the source of the noise.
Slow, Cindy, I told myself. Don't want to mess this up.
With each bag removed, I could hear myself getting closer to the sound's origin. Someone had taken the time to bury it. Fury welled inside me, but I held it at bay to do a job. At the bottom layer, I hit pay dirt-a newborn girl with the cord still attached to her navel, her face and body filthy, her eyes scrunched up, her cries strong and tearless. I yelled out for something to wrap her in, and they handed me a fresh, starched tablecloth. I wiped down the body, cleaned out the mouth and nose as best as I could, and bundled her up-umbilicus and all. I held her up so someone could take her from me. Then I hoisted myself up and out.
The man who had flagged me down offered me a wet towel. I wiped down my hands and face. I asked him his name.
"Good job, Señor Delacruz!" I smiled at him. "Buen trabajo."
The man's eyes were wet.
Moments later, the bundle was passed back to me. I felt grubby holding her, but obviously since I was the only woman in the crowd, I was supposed to know about these kinds of things.
Actually, I did know a thing or two about infants, having a half sister eighteen years my junior. Her mother, Rina-my stepmother -had become very ill after childbirth and guess who stepped up to the plate when my father was in a near state of collapse? (Who could have blamed him? Rina almost died.)
The positive side was the sisterly bonding, at least on my part. Hannah Rosie Decker was my only blood sibling, and they didn't come any cuter or better than she. I adored her. Matter of fact, I liked my father's family very much. Rina's sons were great kids and I loved them and respected them as much as anyone could love and respect step-relatives. Rina took wonderful care of my father, a feat worth noting because Dad was not the easiest person to get along with. I knew this from firsthand experience.
"Did anyone call 911?"
"Yo hable." Delacruz handed me another clean rag to wipe my dirty face.
"Thank you, señor." I had put a clean napkin over my shoulder and was rocking the baby against my chest. "If you can, get some warm sugar water and dunk a clean napkin into it. Then bring it to me."
The man was off in a flash. The baby's cries had quieted to soft sobs. I suddenly noticed that my own cheeks were warm and wet, thrilled that this incident had resolved positively. Delacruz was back with the sugar water-soaked napkin. I took it and put the tip of a corner into her mouth. Immediately, she sucked greedily. In the distance I heard a wail of sirens.
"We've got to get you to the hospital, little one. You're one heck of a strong pup, aren't you?"
I smelled as overripe as rotten fruit. I placed the infant back into Delacruz's arms. " Por favor, give her to the ambulance people. I need to wash my hands."
He took the bundle and began to walk with her. It was one of those Kodak moments, this macho man cooing in Spanish to this tiny, displaced infant. The job had its heartbreak, but it also had its rewards.
After rotating my shoulders to release the tension, I went through the back door of The Tango and asked one of the dishwashers where I could clean up. I heard a gasp and turned around. A man wearing a toque was shooing me away with dismissive hands. "Zis is a food establishment! You cannot come in here like zat!"
"Someone dumped a baby in the trash outside." My stare was fierce and piercing. "I just rescued her by opening up fifteen bags of garbage. I need to wash my hands!"
Toque was confused. "Here? A bébé?"
"Yes, sir! Here! A bébé!" I spotted a cloud of suds that had filled up a sink. Wordlessly, I walked over and plunged my hands inside very warm water. What the heck! All the china went into a dishwasher anyway, right? After ridding my hands of the grime, I ran the cold water full blast and washed my face. One of the kitchen workers was nice enough to offer me a clean towel. I dried myself off and looked up.
The ambulance had arrived, red strobe lights pulsing through the windows. I pointed to Mr. Toque and gave him my steely-eyed look. "Like heartburn, I'll be back. Don't go anywhere."
The EMTs had already cut the cord and were cleaning her up. I regarded the medics as they did their job. A sturdy black woman was holding the baby in her arms while a thin white kid with a consumptive complexion was carefully wiping down the infant's face. Both were gloved.
"How's she doing?" I asked.
They looked up. The thin kid smiled when he saw me. "Whew, you musta been hungry."
The kid's name tag said B. HANOVER. I gave him a hard stare and he recoiled. "Jeez. Just trying out a little levity, Officer. It breaks the tension."
"How's she doing?" I repeated.
The woman answered. Her name was Y. Crumack. "Fine, so far ... a success story."
"That's always nice."
The infant's placenta had been bagged and was resting on the ground a couple of feet away. It would be taken to a pathology lab, the tissue examined for disease and genetic material that might identify her. For no good reason, I picked up the bag.
Crumack said, "We'll need that. It has to be biopsied."
"Yeah, I know. Where are you taking her?"
"Mid-City Pediatric Hospital."
"The one on Vermont," I said.
"Only one I know," Hanover said. "Any ideas about the mom?"
"Not a clue."
"You should find her," Hanover informed me. "It would help everyone out."
"Wow, I hadn't thought about that," I snapped. "Thanks for sharing."
"No need to get testy," Hanover sneered.
Crumack opened the back door, strapping the baby in an infant seat. The wailing had returned. I assumed that to be a positive sign. I gave her the bagged placenta and she placed it in the ambulance.
"She sounds hungry," I said.
"Starved," Crumack answered. "Her abdomen is empty."
"Her head looks ... I don't know ... elongated, maybe? What's that all about?"
"Probably from being pushed out of the birth canal. Main thing is, it isn't crushed. She was real lucky, considering all the things that could have gone wrong. She could've swallowed something and choked; she could've suffocated; she could've been crushed. This is an A-one outcome." She patted my shoulder. "And you're part of it."
I felt my eyes water. "Hey, don't look at me, thank Señor Delacruz," I told her. "He's got good ears."
The man knew enough English to recognize a compliment. His smile was broad.
"Any idea how many hours she's been alive?" I asked the techs.
Hanover said, "Her body temperature hasn't dropped that much. Of course, she was insulated in all that garbage. I'd say a fairly recent dump."
"So what are we talking about?" I asked. "Two hours? Four hours?"
"Maybe," Crumack said. "Six hours, max."
I checked my watch. It was ten-thirty. "So she was dumped around four or five in the afternoon?"
"Sounds about right." Crumack turned to his partner. "Let's go."
I called out, "Mid-City Pediatric!"
Hanover reconfirmed it, slid behind the wheel, and shut the door, moving on out with sirens blaring and lights blazing. My arms felt incredibly empty. Although I rarely thought about my biological clock-I was only twenty-eight-I was suddenly pricked by maternal pangs. It felt good to give comfort. Long ago, that was my primary reason for becoming a cop.
The clincher was my father, of course.
He had discouraged me from entering the profession. Being the ridiculously stubborn daughter I was, his caveats had the opposite effect. There were taut moments between us, but most of that had been resolved. I truly loved being a cop and not because I had unresolved Freudian needs. Still, if I had been sired by a "psychologist dad" instead of a "lieutenant dad," I probably would have become a therapist.
I unhooked my radio from my belt and called the dispatcher, requesting a detective to the scene.
Excerpted from Street Dreams by Faye Kellerman Copyright © 2003 by Faye Kellerman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.