August 7th, 22:45 Atlanta Georgia
Heavy rain driven by strong wind did little to purge the alleyway of the smell of piss and decay. Perfect. She stepped through the doorway set near its entrance just as the middle-aged business man raced past, deeper into the alley, a briefcase clutched in one hand and bloodied knife in the other. A policeman followed moments later. Yes, just perfect.
The Sergeant looked in her direction and, just for a moment, she thought he might speak, but he shouldn’t have seen her. Couldn’t have. She followed a few paces behind, soft-soled boots noiseless on the cobbles as the Sergeant moved deeper into the alley. The one he pursued had rounded a corner now, but beyond it was a dead end.
In no hurry, she followed and, once again, he looked back over his shoulder, this time directly at her. She took a step back into the shadows and he turned away, back towards the murderer. He’d drawn his weapon. It wouldn’t be long now.
Sergeant Burnett shifted his gun to one hand, pulled out a torch and pointed it at a dumpster pushed up against the wall at the alley’s end. The man crouched beside it, briefcase held across his chest and carving knife still gripped in one hand. “Toss the weapon towards me, move into the open and lie face down on the ground.”
“Just kill him and get it over with,” the woman whispered from the darkness. Again the Sergeant looked around. There was no way he could have heard her.
“Drop the knife or I will fire!” Sergeant Burnett shouted. “Do it now!” He backed away as the businessman stumbled to his feet, sidestepping when he hurled the briefcase. Applying an ounce more pressure to the trigger, he said, “nobody needs to die today.”
“Oh yes they do,” the woman whispered.
“Who’s there?” Burnett shouted, swinging gun and torch towards the voice, illuminating blank wall.
The businessman surged forwards, treadless brogues finding little purchase on the slick cobbles. He slipped and stabbed at the air, five yards shy of the Sergeant.
Wary, and sure there was someone else in the alley, Burnett backed against the wall. “Last chance. Drop the weapon and lie face down.” One look in the man’s eye told he’d never surrender. He’d be justified in firing, but this wasn’t some punk dealing death without reason but a respected businessman. Or he had been until twenty minutes ago.
Burnett hopped backwards when the man scrambled towards him with murder in his eyes, and fury distorting his face. Bundling gun and torch into one hand, he pulled out his Taser and fired, praying it would disable the suspect. The man crumpled, bloodied weapon dropping from his hand.
“Oh you bloody idiot,” she hissed as the Sergeant kicked the knife away from the prone murderer. “Just bloody well kill him for both our sakes!”
Burnett looked up as he drove his knee into the murderer’s back, sending another high voltage surge through him. This time, he was sure he’d heard someone speak. “Who the fuck’s there?” Wary, he grabbed one of the man’s arms, slid a cuff over his wrist and then repeated the procedure with the second.
“You fool! You stupid bloody fool.” Lights illuminated the alleyway behind her while the Sergeant sought her out with his torch. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She backed into the shadows, feeling a small twinge of guilt. Well, almost.
“Warn me?” Burnett repeated, not sure he’d heard it or not. The cuffed man now bucked like a wild mustang beneath him, but at least backup had arrived.
And then somehow the suspect was free of his cuffs, his knife back in his hands and facing upwards. Impossible. Burnett fired twice and the man rattled out a final sigh as his lungs emptied. Damn. He looked up, shielding his eyes against the light off his colleagues’ torches. “I… I thought I had him, but he slipped his cuffs.”
“Drop your weapon, and step away from the body,” someone shouted.
Confused, Sergeant Burnett looked down at the huge hole in the back of the businessman’s head, fragments of bone shining bright in the morass of brain matter. He was still cuffed and his knife lay five yards away. How? Someone called his name. Someone shrieking for him to drop his gun. “There was a woman… She saw what happened. He slipped his cuffs… He was going to stab me.” He placed his gun beside the body and held his hands up. “You must have seen her…” And then he was dragged to one side, his face pushed into the cobbles, a knee on his neck.
“You executed him, you mad fucker,” someone said.
“Ain’t no one gonna speak for you this time, Burnett,” another voice said. “You’re going down.”
He was pulled to his feet and marched out of the alley, struggling against his restraints when he reached the corner. “Ask her. She saw everything. She’ll tell you what happened,” Burnett shouted, nodding at the shadows.
She stepped backwards, shuddering as Sergeant Burnett looked straight at her. Still, he was a problem she may never have to deal with, but the dead man was another matter. In minutes, the alley would be flooded with people, but she already knew all she needed. “This isn’t good,” she said. “Not good at all.” No one looked up. No one heard her, but she’d be taking a risk by staying longer. She walked back to the small metal door she’d entered by and, resting her hand on it, took a moment to watch the cuffed Sergeant being bundled into the back of a police cruiser. He was screaming now as the enormity of all that had happened sunk in. Then, just in the moment before he was pushed into the car, his eyes locked on hers. “Well, I did warn you,” she whispered.
Taking a final look around her, she tightened her grip on the door handle, hoping she’d never have to visit this shithole again. She pulled, but the door didn’t budge. An icy shiver slid down her back as she tugged harder but it still didn’t open. She was trapped here. They all were.
August 8th, 02:20
Burnett had stared through the bars a thousand times, but never from this side. Normally the duty sergeant would be the only one who’d walk the twenty pace corridor that paralleled the six cells. Normally. Then again, they didn’t often contain one of their own. There’d been a dozen sightseers in the last hour alone, and he could put a name to every one of them. After all, Captain Jeffries had insisted he be driven back to his own precinct. Bastard.
No matter how many times he went over events, they just wouldn’t make sense. The suspect had slipped his cuffs and would have stabbed him if he’d not fired. – He didn’t doubt this had happened. A moment later the cuffs had been back on and he’d been staring into a two-inch hole he’d blown in the back of the man’s head. – He was certain of that too. How he squared one certainty against the other was another matter.
So now he sat on a bunk in a cell. In a few hours he’d be taken before a judge, and he had no idea what he would say to him. What could he say?
But there’d been the woman. If only the bloody idiots had listened to him, they could have brought her in as a witness and he’d not be sat in a cell waiting for the next pair of colleagues to walk past. He could describe her to a tee if anyone had cared to listen. She’d come through the door at the head of the alley. He’d even had to step around it as he raced after the suspect. When he was being bundled into the back of the squad car, she’d been there again, staring at him with one hand on the door handle. All they had to do was fingerprint it and they’d ID her. She hadn’t been wearing gloves.
More footsteps sounded outside, and he lay back on his bunk, feigning sleep. They grew louder, falling silent right outside his cell. Through closed eyelids he pictured one of his colleagues with their phone pushed between the bars taking a little souvenir picture.
“If you’re really sleeping, then you’ve either ice in your veins or you’re guilty as charged.”
Burnett’s eyes flew open, and he even managed a half smile. “Fuck you Taylor. I’m just not gonna put on a show for the goons that come for a look-see.” He twisted around on his bed and faced the bars. “So, what’s the news?”
Sergeant Taylor ran a hand over his bald head. “Here, I brought you a coffee. I’d have slipped something stronger in it if I could.” He held his friend’s eye. “You’re not gonna like this…”
“Like what?” Burnett was on his feet, across the cell and grabbing hold of the bars with both hands, knuckles whitening. “What’s happened?”
“Well, forensics are still going over the crime scene, but there’s footage of you and the suspect entering the alley caught on a traffic cam. It’s clear as you like, but there ain’t no woman.”
“I told you, she came out of a doorway at the head of the alley,” Burnett said, voice strained. “No camera would have seen her unless it was looking straight down it. You’ll lift prints off the handle. Shit, I could describe her as good as I could my own mother, if anyone bothered to ask.”
“Yeh, well, forensics know to check out the door too, and the sketch artist will be coming in around nine. Captain never saw fit to wake them in the middle of the night. Thing is, Jeffries is one of those who thinks you just snapped. That door hadn’t been opened in a decade and more…”
“It was stood wide open when I chased the suspect into the alley,” Burnett interrupted. “I had to sidestep around it.”
“Bro, it was welded shut and…”
“This is B.S., all of it. Someone is fitting me up.” Burnett punched the only thing he could, an iron bar, and instantly regretted it.
“You need to listen up,” Taylor said, a note of urgency in his voice. “They got the door opened with crowbars, and the entrance was bricked over behind it.” He glanced down the corridor. “Jesus, I could get suspended just for telling you, but if you keep on claiming there was a woman who came through a welded door with a brick wall behind it, you’re gonna end up wearing a straitjacket with your own personal name tag on the back.” He leaned closer. “What happened tonight? I don’t buy it that you just snapped, but something happened. Something must have.”
Burnett stumbled back to his bed and sat down heavily. “This cannot be real. This is not happening.” He focussed on a stain on the concrete floor where a prisoner had attempted suicide just a week back by biting his own wrists. “I swear to God there was a woman. Tall, with shoulder length light brown hair and green eyes, perhaps one-ten maybe one-fifteen pounds. She was mid-twenties, covered in freckles and with a mouth that looked like she was puckering for a kiss. I…”
Taylor put the coffee down on the floor inside Burnett’s cell, held his hands up and backed towards the far wall of the corridor. “Bro, we got to end it here.” He glanced up at the security camera. “I dunno what happened tonight, but you’re in a shitpile, and it’s just growing deeper with every word you speak. I’m out.” Without a backward glance, he walked away.
Burnett ran back to the bars, heedless of the coffee he kicked over. “You know who she is, don’t you? You fucking well know,” he shouted. “Ask her. Ask her what happened tonight and look her in the eye when you do. She’ll tell you he slipped his cuffs. Listen Taylor, she spoke to me.”
Taylor, paused at the door that led from the cellblock. He didn’t look back, couldn’t look back. “She was the suspect’s secretary, the one he murdered. Stabbed her through both eyes and then carved someone’s initials into her stomach.” He lowered his voice, dropping it to the faintest of whispers. “Were you in on that too?” he asked.
August 8th, 07:15
“Wakey wakey,” Lieutenant O’Connor barked, running his truncheon along the cell bars. “Your brief’s here, but she’s just gonna have to wait until I’m done with you.” He shook his head, blue eyes staring in disbelief from behind thick-lensed glasses at Sergeant Burnett. “What happened last night Mark?”
It took Burnett a moment to claw his way out of dark dreams filled with spattered brains and dead women lurking in alleyways. He slid his legs off the bunk and did his best to focus on the Lieutenant. “I’m still trying to work that one out myself.” He scrubbed at his face, willing the lurid afterimages from his nightmare away. “How am I supposed to tell the judge a cuffed and unarmed man tried to stab me, and the only witness to it turns out to be the woman he’d already murdered.” He held the Lieutenant’s eye. “But I swear to God that’s exactly what happened. Either that, or the murder victim had a twin sister who can tear open a welded shut door and walk through a brick wall.”
“And a man, hands cuffed behind his back and lying on his face, trying to stab you?”
“There was a woman, that I don’t doubt, but…” Burnett leaned forwards and rested his palms on his forehead. “The suspect couldn’t have slipped his cuffs, and the knife was well out of reach. I had to have imagined it, but it seemed so real…” He nodded, replaying last night’s events over in his mind for the thousandth time. “She warned me. The woman said something about warning me. She wasn’t local, her accent I mean.”
“Well, that rules out the secretary then as she was born and bred in the city,” Lieutenant O’Connor said. “And since her next of kin is a male cousin, I’d say she was an only child.” He unlocked the cell door, walked in and sat beside Burnett. “Mark, I promised your mother I’d look out for you on the day you enrolled, but I just don’t know how I can help. Your second shot was captured on one of the lad’s bodycams and the suspect was cuffed, prone and unarmed. Tox on you came back clean too, and I kinda wish it hadn’t.”
“So you think I’m guilty?”
“Of course I bloody don’t, at least not of murder,” O’Connor snapped. “There has to be something you’re holding back because I don’t believe you’re insane either.”
“Just run the prints on the door handle,” Burnett said, calm voice belying the shrieks of despair rattling in his head. “I’m sane as the next man, but what I said happened did happen. What else can I tell the judge other than the truth?”
“There were no prints.”
“That’s not possible. She wasn’t wearing gloves…”
“Mark, there was no woman, there can’t have been,” O’Connor answered. “Think! There were twenty police officers in the alleyway when you were led out, and not one of them saw her. It’s less than three yards wide with no other exits and everyone had a flashlight. Most had bodycams too. You’ve got to give your brief something to work with because at the minute you’re either going down for first degree murder or life in a secure mental facility. Did the suspect say anything to you? Did he goad you?”
“Not you too, Lieutenant…”
“Now listen up, we’re both cops and we gotta deal with what’s in front of us,” O’Connor said, a note of urgency entering his ever calm voice. “I know you shot the guy in the back of the head while he was cuffed, so it’s safe to say you killed him. ‘The non-existent woman will confirm this,’ is not a valid defence. He didn’t slip his cuffs and there was no woman. These things are not in doubt…”
“We’ve got seconds here before the Duty Sergeant comes in and, Lieutenant or otherwise, he’ll chew my ear off at the very least for being sat here talking with you. You’re meeting your brief next, and she’s gonna say the same thing. Give the judge a reason not to charge you with murder or you’re looking at life.”
“You’re telling me to lie?”
“I’m telling you to do yourself a favour.” O’Connor stood. “Now I’m supposed to be taking you to meet your lawyer, so just think hard on all I’ve said.”
Burnett nodded, but his mouth was filled with bile. “You’d best cuff me before you lead me out.” He said it far more harshly than he had meant. The lieutenant was telling him to lie.
Karen Ellis was stood in the corner of the interview room, back to the door, when he walked in. She was small and slender, but high heels and a wide shouldered jacket mitigated both. She glanced over her shoulder when Lieutenant O’Connor sat him down, but turned back away, phone pressed to her ear. After removing one cuff and securing it to a heavy steel loop set in the table, the Lieutenant withdrew, shutting the door behind him.
Burnett watched her rear much as he’d done when they’d been at high school together, although she’d been two years above him. Damn, that made her thirty now. She’d swapped ten-dollar Costcutter jeans for a two-thousand-dollar business suit. A state bursary for a quarter million annual salary, much of it paid by the Police Union. She turned back towards him and offered him a mechanical smile, green-grey eyes not really seeing him. There was still no ring on her wedding finger, although word around the station was she was dating some hot-shot who worked for the President.
“It’s a good job you didn’t sign this.”
It took Burnett a moment to realise she’d ended her call and was talking to him. In her hand she clutched the statement he’d made when they’d first brought him in last night. “Yeh, that’s not what happened,” his voice rose half an octave midway through speaking. Her eyebrows rose even further than that.
“Speak that way in front of the judge, and he’ll think you’re lying.” She pulled the chair out opposite him, this time her full focus on his face. “Are you?”
“Just shocked to be in this position. Numb, I guess.” He shifted in his chair as she continued to stare. “A lot of the detail came back to me while I was sleeping. It’s said an electric shock messes with your short-term memory.” Those eyebrows went up further, and one corner of her mouth went up too, just like it used to at school.
“Tasered yourself, did you?”
He dropped his eyes, wondering if she ever blinked. She sounded amused. “Yeh, I think I grabbed hold of the contacts when I was giving him another shot.”
She leaned back in her chair, apologising when her foot caught his. “So then you accidentally discharged your weapon into the back of his head. Twice.”
“Yes, no. I… I was confused, disorientated. It was raining and the wind was blowing shit about all over the place. Backup was arriving, and they were shining their torches all over and there were shadows everywhere. I thought one shadow was a woman, and then…” Burnett closed his eyes. He was lying, and she must know it. “…And then I thought he was free of his cuffs. The shadows… Anyhow I fired, thinking my life was in danger.”
“Good. That’s good.” Her smile was that of a teacher offering praise to a dumb student who’d solved the simplest of equations. “So how is it you described the woman the suspect is alleged to have murdered, claiming she was in the alley and spoke to you?”
Her foot hit his again and he flinched. “I… I said my memory was full of holes. I guess I must have heard someone back at the precinct describe her, and just kinda added it to the mess that was all I remembered of what happened.” She just sat there looking dubious. “Look, if I’d wanted to murder him, I could have gotten away with it as soon as I walked in the alley. He had a knife and he lunged for me, but I Tasered him instead. I’d have to be a fool to execute him the way it looks like.”
“And are you a fool?” Karen asked. “Did he say something while you had him in cuffs and you snapped? He was a bright guy, successful and likely a good manipulator of people. Did he goad you?”
Burnett gripped the steel loop which secured him to the table and leaned forwards. “Three years ago I apprehended the man who’d slit my mother’s throat. I was alone, he was armed and yet I took him into custody. He pushed me as far as any man can be pushed and I never considered breaking the law for even one second.” His hand cramped with how hard he gripped the steel bar. “I believe in justice, and it’s the reason I wear the uniform I do. Did. Sure as hell didn’t choose to be a cop for thirty k a year.”
She smiled. “You plead not guilty. With any luck you’ll walk free today and there’ll be no trial. You’ll be back in that uniform and earning your thirty k a year before my Aunty Grace can down a pint of bourbon.”
The shift in Karen’s attitude was so dramatic that Burnett just stared at her as if she were a different person. She even talked differently “So you believe me? You think the judge will?”
“They’re two very different questions. The judge will believe you, that’s for sure.”
“But you believe me, yes?” Burnett pressed.
She leaned forward, resting her chin on one hand. “No. You’re lying through your teeth, but you didn’t murder him, so all we’re doing is going about proving that in the best way we can. You good with that, yes?”
No, he was far from good with that. “Yes,” he said. “So what happens now?”
“You should know as well as me. We see the judge, and you enter your plea. Add nothing. I intend to argue that the case should be dismissed at the arraignment, and there’s a good chance that’ll be the end of it. Well, there will still be IA to deal with. If probed, just rephrase what you’ve already said. Add even one bit that we’ve not talked over here and the prosecution will be on you like a crowbar on a treasure chest.” She stood, reached across the table and patted his cheek. “I’ll be there, and more likely than not you’ll get some pretty easy bail conditions if the charges aren’t dropped there and then. You’ll do great so relax.” Without speaking further, she stood, banged on the door and walked out, the drum of her heels fading to silence in the long, tiled corridor.
August 8th, 10:27
With a little arm twisting by the Lieutenant, even the Captain had conceded it wouldn’t be good practice to send Burnett to court in a van with the other prisoners. Still, he was handcuffed and sat in the back of a police cruiser while looking out on a public he’d sworn to protect and serve almost six years ago.
He’d signed his statement and the prosecutors had decided there was enough direct evidence to charge him with murder even though they’d had less than two hours to consider the case. There wasn’t a cop at the precinct who hadn’t read a copy, and the atmosphere had thawed noticeably since last night. He wasn’t popular, he knew that, but if all but the most vocal of his opponents were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, the judge would too. He just wished he knew what had really happened last night.
“A bit more press than usually outside,” Officer Gideon said as he pulled the cruiser up outside the law courts. “I’d take you around the back, but the Captain said that would look bad on us all.”
Burnett peered out of the window and shuddered. He’d been to many arraignments over the years, and only in the high profile cases were there quite so many reporters and news crews with their video cameras. From the looks of it, every major network stood between him and the courthouse. “Reckon there must be someone else up before the magistrate they’re after seeing.”
Officer O’Malley, sat in the passenger seat beside Officer Gideon, shook his head. “Nah, it looks like they’re here for you,” he said as the press surged towards the car. “Should have brought a bit more backup. They’ve got us outnumbered. Shit, I hate the damned press.”
Burnett hardly heard. He’d spotted his lawyer atop the steps in front of the courthouse. The look on her face was about as far removed as could be from the confident one he’d seen just three hours ago. He lost sight of her as she fought her way towards the car with the help of two court security guards. In the front, both Officers were struggling to get their doors open, such was the throng surrounding the cruiser.
By the time the two officers had managed to get out of the car and around to Burnett’s door, Karen Ellis had her face pushed close to the glass. She grabbed the handle and struggled to pull it open as the court security guards, now four in number, made a little space around her with the aid of O’Malley and Gideon. She shoved her head inside the car. “Say nothing, keep your expression neutral and I’ll explain inside.”
Burnett nodded. But his stomach roiled like he’d swallowed a winter storm. With the aid of Gideon, he managed to scramble out of the car, his hands cuffed behind him. Cameras were shoved in his face, flashes all but blinding him as he half jogged towards the court building, ringed by his six minders, or seven if you included Karen who was shoving reporters out of the way every bit as hard as the rest of them. Although the shrieked questions overlapped, he heard the mayor’s name mentioned several times. Something had gone wrong, badly wrong, and he had the feeling he would be the one paying the price.
Once inside the court, things calmed a little. Karen led him towards an interview room, but her tight grip on his arm did nothing to ease his anxiety. “What’s happening?” he asked as she dragged him into the room and pushed the door shut in one of the security guards faces.
“I need two minutes alone with my client,” she shouted through the glazed door.
“It’s gone tits up, hasn’t it? I’ve not said a word to anyone since I signed the statement…”
“Shut up and listen,” she interrupted. “The man you shot was called Eric Sanderson, the mayor’s nephew. His only nephew. Word is he’ll settle for nothing less than the death penalty, but there’s no way that’s going to happen.”
“You said I’d walk free.”
“And I’ll do everything I can to make that happen. You are not a murderer.”
She gripped his arms so hard he wouldn’t have been surprised to find marks there later. “But you don’t think that’s gonna happen, do you?”
“The prosecution know that they’d fall flat on their faces if they pushed for the death penalty. This is only an arraignment, but I’m still going to push to have the case discharged.” She took a step backwards and slumped against the room’s single table. “The judge is the mayor’s golf buddy and has been dragged in from a day off, so there’s little chance he’ll dismiss it today, but I still have to try.”
“I’ll still get bail, won’t I, even if they force this to go to trial?” He couldn’t believe any of this was happening.
“The prosecution will object, and they’ll have the judges ear, but I will do what I can.”
“And your gut reaction?” He didn’t want to know it, and all the less when she flinched on being asked.
“You won’t make bail, but you’ll be on trial within the month.”
“But they’ll find me not guilty though, yes? I mean, the jury are the ones who’ll still decide.” Again she flinched. “What? What is it you’re not telling me?”
“The mayor wants your blood, all of it, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.” She ran a hand through her hair. “This is what I do, and I’m bloody good at it. Let’s just get today over with and take stock afterwards.” There was a knock on the door and a court official peered through the glazed panel, holding up his wrist and tapping the watch there. “Remember, say nothing outside of what we talked about.”
August 10th 06:07
“It was three days ago, on the seventh.” Sister Alina stared up at her tall blonde haired companion. His clear blue eyes were set in a frown, but it did nothing to mar a face that was as beautiful as she’d ever seen.
“Now why would she be interested in a simple murder?” He pulled his heavy mac tighter around him, offering a smile to the young woman. Her face lit up in response. “And you’re certain she’s still here in the city?”
“Absolutely certain,” the nun replied. “What does it mean?”
“Well, I’m not sure and, even if I were, I doubt it’s any of my business,” he answered. “We tend not to tread on each other’s toes.” He walked deeper into the alley, the faint smell of blood and spattered brain still evident to his sensitive nostrils. “And the man who shot the murderer was called Mark Burnett, a policeman who, from all accounts, was one of the best they had.”
“Yes, the Mayor is trying to have him charged with murdering his nephew,” Alina said. “The judge on the case is a friend of his.”
“Did you see what happened, the shooting, I mean?”
“No, I was nearby, and heard the shots when I was about fifty yards away. There were lots of police then. I saw them leading Mark Burnett to one of the squad cars. He was shrieking to ‘ask her’ what had happened, but I never saw who he was talking about.” She clutched her hands in front of her. “Am I in danger?”
“From her?” He laughed, resting a hand on Alina’s shoulder and squeezing it gently. “You’d be in more danger from an elderly nun running amok at evening prayer. Now, on that note, I suggest you return before you get into trouble with Reverend Mother. Or should I say more trouble.”
“I have a good excuse,” Alina replied, backing away a step, but unwilling to take her eyes off him.
“Watch Mark Burnett, and I will contact you if necessary.” She made no move to leave. “Go,” he said, making a shooing motion with his hands. He shook his head when, with a final overfamiliar grin, she turned around and walked away, even daring a coy look over her shoulder before rounding the corner. Not really the kind of behaviour one expected of a nun.
Once she was out of sight, his smile slipped. Echoes of violence hung thick in the air, and that had nothing to do with the policeman’s recent actions. Something was changing and a storm loitered just beyond the horizon. Perhaps it would be best if he too were to stay for a while, and find out just why she had taken an interest in Mark Burnett.
Pulling his collar up and shoving his hands deep into his pockets, he shuddered despite the promised warmth of the approaching sunrise. What was she up to this time?