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Thursday, October 5, 2000
I guess I could say it started for us on Thursday, October 5, 2000. I can say that now. I sure couldn't at the time.
It was exactly 23:33 hours, and I was just leaving the scene of a minor fender bender, and was en route home when the communications center called.
"Comm, Three?" came crackling over the radio, from the familiar voice of my favorite dispatcher, Sally Wells.
I picked up my mike, suspicious already. "This is Three. Go ahead."
"Three, we have a 911 intruder call, 606 Main, Freiberg. Female subject needs immediate assistance. Freiberg officer has been dispatched and is requesting backup."
I sighed audibly. "Ten-four, Comm." I took stock of my current location. "I'll be ten-seventy-six to the scene from about seven miles out on County Four Victor Six."
"Three, ten-seventy-six. Three, not sure if this is completely ten-thirty-three, but you might be aware that the female subject indicated that there was a man trying to come in her window."
I reached down and turned on my red and blue top lights. "Three is en route. Can she ID the suspect?"
"Contact was broken by the caller, Three. Auto callback rings through, no answer. Female subject was very excited, but described the intruder as a white male with . . ." She paused, and I thought I had detected barely suppressed humor in her voice. "Ah, continuing, Three. Suspect described as white male with teeth."
"Ten-four, Three. Teeth."
"Ah, okay, ten-four. Still en route. Advise when the Freiberg car goes ten-twenty-three at the scene." Teeth?
"Ten-four, Three. Will advise."
Teeth? I distinctly remember thinking that I wasn't going to hear the end of that one for a while. At least it wasn't a gun or a knife. I really hate knives.
Our usual shortage of deputies available for duty had been aggravated by an early appearance of the flu in the last two weeks, so from a total of nine, we were down to five or four effectives, depending on who called in sick next, and when the next officer came back. As senior officer, I still had to pull twelve-hour shifts, but my exalted status meant that I got first choice of which shift I would work. I'd chosen noon to midnight. It was a combination of the shift that was the most fun, and the one where you could get the most actual work done.
About two minutes later, I heard Byng, the Freiberg officer, go 10-23 at the scene.
"I was ten-four direct, Comm," I said, letting Sally know that I had heard him and to keep her from having to tell me. That was because her transmissions from the base station were so much more powerful than ours, she could obliterate a transmission from the Freiberg officer, especially when he was on his walkie-talkie.
She simply clicked her mike button twice in close succession, in acknowledgment.
I passed the last farm before the Freiberg city limits, took the big, downhill curve at about eighty-five, and began braking as I entered the forty-five zone. I was down to forty as I made the next turn, and was on Marquette Street, the two-story frame houses of the residential area changing into the three-story brick storefronts of the nearly deserted four-block business district. I cut my top lights, the red and blue reflections in the store windows being a distraction as I looked for anybody out on the sidewalks. Still slowing, I headed down the gently sloping street that was cut short by the black line that was the Mississippi River.
I heard the static distorted voice of Byng. "Where ya at, Three?"
"Downtown." As I keyed the mike, I saw his car parked off to my right. "Have your car in sight." By telling him that, he could give me better directions.
"Okay . . . I'm on the second floor above Curls & Cuts. Up the stairs on the right, the blue door."
"Ten-four." I swung my car to the right, pulling up near the curb about thirty feet ahead of his car. "Comm, Three's ten-twenty-three," I said into my mike as I unsnapped my seat belt, grabbed my rechargeable flashlight, turned on my own walkie-talkie, and opened my car door. Simultaneously, I heard the voices of both Byng and Sally back at Comm. She, being over twenty-five miles away and using a powerful transmitter, and he, very close but behind a brick wall and using a very weak transmitter, canceled each other out almost perfectly.
Knowing that she was merely acknowledging me, and not being at all sure of what Byng had said, I picked up my car radio mike and said, "Stand by a sec, Comm." The feedback into my now active walkie-talkie let out a screech, and I turned its volume down without thinking. Still with the car radio, I said, "Byng?"
"Yeah, Three. Hey, why don't you come around the back way? I don't know what we got here. Neighbor says the victim has gone and thinks she heard her leave and that she went up onto the roof."
I swung my feet back into my car, started the engine, shut the door, and said, "I'm on my way."
"Uh, Three . . . You might want to check ground level . . . Can't figure why she'd go to the roof."
"Ten-four." I couldn't, either, but people do strange things when they're scared. I sure as hell wouldn't go up, but then I have a thing about heights.
I had to go almost another block before I reached a side street. Freiberg is located between two big bluffs, and is only four streets wide at its widest point. Spaces being at a premium, cross streets are few and far between. The fact that the cross streets all required a bridge to span the open drainage "conduit" contributed to their scarcity. The so-called conduit was about thirty feet wide, ten to twelve feet deep, with limestone banks and a concrete floor. It was dug in the 1890s to accommodate the vast drainage that came down off the bluffs during heavy rains. It ran the length of the town, and emptied into the Mississippi. It was not, as they say, kid-proof, and offered a nearly invisible path for burglars as well. I bumped over the bridge deck, and took a sharp right, doubling back on the other side of the stores and apartments above them. I stopped as close to the bridge as I could, and opened my car door for the second time. "Comm, Three's out'a the car," I said, mostly to let Byng know I was now behind the buildings.
"Ten-four, Three," said Sally. She was monitoring the conversation between Byng and me, and was starting to sound a little concerned.
The conduit was, unfortunately, between the buildings and me. The fire department had fits over that all the time, but there was just no way to put a road in behind the stores on the other side of the big ditch. Not without tearing all the buildings down and moving them into the street on the other side.
Without a road or alley directly behind the buildings, most of them had constructed their own little footbridges across to their loading areas. Easy access, as they say, but easy for burglars as well. For that reason, I had gotten very, very familiar with the area over the years.
The lighting sucked. One yellowish orange light at the road bridge, and one about a block away. Not much room for them, either, because of the hundred-fifty-foot limestone bluff looming up on my left. It was sheer, naked rock for about fifty feet, and then brush and trees began sprouting all the way to the top. The builders had to squeeze the road in, and the whole area was a sandwich of necessity. Bluff, road, conduit, buildings. No room for anything else.
I squeezed the rubberized transmit button of my walkie-talkie. "Which one you in, Byng?" It was really hard to differentiate the various stores from the rear. Looking up, most of them had some light visible in the second floor. Most third floors in this block were empty, mainly because the heating in the winter was so expensive. Even as I spoke, I saw him at one of the windows on the second floor.
"Up here, Three," he said. Very faint. I'd forgotten to turn my walkie-talkie volume back up.
I looked closely at the back of his building. A poorly maintained external wooden stair led up the back, to a very narrow platform at the second floor. From there an iron ladder that was bolted to the brick wall rose up to the roof. Great. If the victim had fled upward, this particular cop was going to have to meet her when she came down. I really do hate heights.
"Byng, you got a location for the suspect?"
"Negative, Three. All I got is what your office said. White male with teeth."
"Okay. I don't see the victim here. You got any better ideas where I might--"
I was interrupted by a female voice. "Help!" It sounded like it was coming from the building, but there was something odd about it.
I played my flashlight along the rows of windows, hoping to see her. Byng stuck his flashlight out the window where he was, and played it down toward the ground. I got a queasy feeling in my stomach. If he was inside and thought it had come from outdoors, and I was outside and thought it had come from up where he was . . .
The roof. She could be on the roof.
The rear of the store was four windows wide at the second-floor level. Usually, there was a pair to each apartment, with the hall between. The door at the top of the stair very likely marked the division between apartments.
I looked at the reddish brown wooden walkway over the conduit. Nothing special, and absolutely no indication of a foot track on its deck. Its rails were just two-by-fours with peeling paint. I shined my flashlight down into the wide ditch, and checked the damp, accumulated silt as far as I could see. No foot tracks there, either. Too bad. Tracks in the silt had solved at least two burglaries for me in the past. I shined my flashlight up on to the rear of the buildings, left to right. There were all sorts of color variations, pieces of black felt and tar paper dangling from unused windows and old doors. One in particular, a door that just opened up to emptiness because the stair had collapsed years ago, seemed to be packed with a black drop cloth.
I checked the roofline for any ropes or fittings. Just making sure we didn't have somebody who had dropped in, so to speak. There weren't any. Good.
"Where do you want me?" I said into the mike on my shoulder.
"Nobody down there?"
"Nobody I can see."
"Why don't you come on up the back way? I think . . . it sounds like she's above me someplace."
"I'm going up the next flight, see if I can get to the roof from the third floor."
Great. I'm not exactly slight, and I really didn't want to haul my 270 pounds up those chancy wooden steps. Damn.
I took a deep breath. "Be right up," I said.
As I reached the narrow platform at the top, I paused and looked back down, illuminating the area with my flashlight. All the way into the bottom of the drainage ditch. Looking down probably thirty-five or forty feet. Instant vertigo.
I grabbed the railing, and forced myself to look back toward the building. Wow. I hate when that happens. I turned as I let go of the rail, and was at the door in one step, trying to look casual. It's not that I'm ashamed of my little height problem, but it's bad for the image if you're a cop. I took another deep breath, and forced myself to concentrate on the door. Swell. It was about as wide as the damned platform, and opened outward. I had to take a half step back, onto that platform again, before I could get the stupid door open. When I did, the platform creaked. I turned sideways and squeezed around the partially opened door, and found myself in a dim hallway, between two apartments, just as I had assumed. There was an open door on my left, leading into a surprisingly nice, well-lighted kitchen area. The door on my right was closed. Clear at the other end of the hallway was a stair, leading to the third floor. There was an older woman standing near the stair.
"He thinks she's up on the roof," she said loudly. "He's gone upstairs to see if he can get to the roof, but I told him he can't."
"Thanks," I said under my breath.
I heard the voice again, very muted this time, as I was now inside. But there was no mistaking it. Not panicky, but frightened.
Byng apparently heard it as well. Excited, I could hear his voice thundering from upstairs, and on my walkie-talkie at the same time.
"The roof! She's on the roof! Get to the roof!"
Well, I was closest to the goddamned ladder.
I turned, and headed back out onto that creaking platform. I stood for a second, looking at the ladder in the beam of my flashlight. Rusty iron. Bolted to the brick, but I could see the thick rust around the bolts, and some orangeish stuff where the bolts had worked in the brick. Shit.
I could hear Byng's running steps as he came off the stair at the far end of the building, and started down the hall toward my platform. There wasn't room for both of us.
I took a very deep breath, slipped my flashlight in my belt, grabbed the sides of the ladder, and took one step up. "Not too bad. Not too bad"--I kept repeating that as I took the second step.
I let my breath out. Piece of cake. Well, so far. The problem was that this ladder went up a whole 'nother floor, and then to the roof. I took another breath, held it, and kept going. Then, about six or seven steps up, I felt the ladder shift. Instant vertigo again. I could feel myself pressing against the ladder rungs, my hands beginning to hurt as they squeezed the flat side rail. "Keep yourself against the ladder, Carl. Press against the ladder, and your weight won't overbalance it and tear it away from the wall," I whispered to myself. Everything in me said to go back down. I honestly think that, if I hadn't been in uniform, I couldn't have done it. But I went up.
Over the years, I've learned that, if I can convince myself that I'm pushing the building down into the ground with each step, as opposed to me rising farther and farther above the ground, I can sometimes fool myself all the way to the top. I mean, I know I'm fooling myself, but with sufficient concentration that doesn't matter. I started to do that now. One step at a time, I'd grab the next rung in a death grip, and then gingerly shift the opposite foot up one rung. Pushing the huge building down into the ground. Ridiculous, but it worked. All I needed was concentration. I was moving as fast as I could, and still not getting more than half an inch from the wall. Progress. My thigh muscles were getting shaky, and my forearms hurt from squeezing, but I was going up.