Julie Lawrence is a Victim’s Advocate for the Denver PD. Her job is to respond to domestic violence incidents, fires, car accidents and other tragic events where people need help dealing with their darkest moments. She has had her own share of tragedies in the past which gives her empathy and a unique insight into victims and what they need to heal and move on with their lives. But she is better at giving advice than taking it and has closed herself off from sharing her life with anyone or anything except a stray tiger-striped gray cat.
- Won 1st place in The Best Indie Suspense Novel of 2013 and
- 3rd place in the Readers’ Favorite Suspense Novel Award of 2013.
Kathy Clark also is writing a New Adult Romantic Suspense series (Scandals) and Young Adult Romantic Mystery series with the CUL8R series under the pen name of Bob Kat.
Find out more about Kathy’s 29 books on her website at http://www.nightwriter93.com
CAUTION: Beta Reviewers have advised this chapter is hard to read but even harder to put down.
CRIES IN THE NIGHT
The back door slammed with such force that the small house shuddered. In the back bedroom the woman froze in front of the ironing board, the iron paused in mid-air. Steam poured out of the holes with a hiss, but she didn’t notice. Instead, her gaze raced across the room and met the wide eyes of her son who had been playing with a boxful of Matchbox cars.
He dropped the tiny red Ferrari he had been holding and scuttled backward, disappearing under the bed. No words had been spoken, but he knew the drill. This wasn’t his first rodeo. He had learned early that out of sight also meant out of the line of fire.
The woman wasn’t so lucky.
Heavy, quick footsteps signaled the man’s approach down the hallway. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she realized she hadn’t taken a breath since he had entered the house. She exhaled slowly, trying to calm her nerves and steel herself for the battle ahead. Even before she saw his face, she knew he was angry . . . at her, at his son, at his boss, at his life. It didn’t really matter. He always came home to share his dissatisfaction with her.
“Where the hell is he?” The man wasn’t large, but when he was in one of his moods, he seemed to expand in size until his presence filled the doorway.
“Who?” she managed to ask, struggling to keep her expression under control. For some reason, it made him angrier if she showed fear even though her legs were trembling.
He threw his car keys at her. She tried to dodge, but the unexpected movement and her own swollen bulk slowed her. The keys smashed into her left cheek, then fell to the floor with a clatter.
“You know who. That piece of shit kid. He left his goddamn sled in the driveway and I ran over it. Twenty bucks. Trashed. I work hard and get paid shit. And he just throws his toys around like they were nothing.”
“He’s usually really careful . . .”
He cut her off. “Didn’t he go to school today?”
“They had a teacher’s workday.”
“Then he has no excuse for not bringing in the garbage cans.”
“It was snowing too hard.”
“Not too hard for him to play.” He kicked the basket of laundry against the wall. “You fuckin’ baby him too much.”
“He’s only six.” She knew that arguing only made him angrier, but her motherly instinct was to defend her young.
The man’s dark gaze raked the room before focusing on the abandoned Matchbox cars. His nostrils flared and he moved toward the bed, knowing it was the most likely hiding place.
“No!” the woman cried. “Leave him alone.” She reached out to grab him, but he swung his arm to fend her off as if he was swatting away an annoying insect. She reacted by striking back. Unfortunately, the iron was still clenched in her hand. The hot surface landed flat against his forearm and the back of his hand. Steam oozed out of the holes as the skin sizzled.
With a guttural roar, he jerked back as quickly as possible and looked down at the arced-shaped blisters that had already bubbled up. Like an enraged bull in the ring distracted by the matador’s cape, he turned his attention back to her.
“What the fuck?” He knocked the iron out of her hand, grabbed the front of her sweater in his meaty fist and pulled her forward, over the ironing board which clattered to the floor. Her feet scrambled to keep upright as he dragged her over the metal legs.
“I . . . I’m . . . sorry, Carlos. I didn’t mean to . . .”
He silenced her with a punch so hard that her teeth rattled. Momentarily dazed, she didn’t struggle as he slammed her back against the door frame. Her head cracked against the wood and she could feel the sharp edges biting into her shoulders. She didn’t fight back as he hit her again and again. She knew she deserved this. If she hadn’t hit him with the iron, he wouldn’t have come at her like this. The skin over her eye slit under his knuckles, and she could feel the warm flow of blood pour down her face. But as bad as it hurt, she knew it was nothing like the pain he was feeling from the burn. So she let him take it out on her. She owed him that.
It wasn’t until his blows moved lower that her defense mechanism got its second wind. His fist buried into her breast. Swollen from the imminent birth of her baby, the pain shot through her like a lightning bolt. He drew back and would have landed a blow in her expanded abdomen, but she collapsed, trying in the only way she knew how to defend her unborn baby. He released his hold on her sweater, but instead of stepping away, he kicked her.
She curled her body in a protective shell, putting all the flesh and bone she could between his steel-toed boot and her stomach. He kicked her again and again, cursing her with words that burned her soul as much as her ears. Finally, she blacked out.
A child’s scream woke her. She struggled to open her eyes, but one was swollen shut.
“Mama, mama!” the little boy cried.
Her hands slid in the puddles of blood on the floor as she struggled to push into a sitting position. Her blood. She could see it staining the white yarn of her sweater. In the back of her mind came the random thought that that was her favorite sweater, and now it was probably ruined. She had so few clothes that still fit.
Her son’s small hands wrapped around her wrist and she stifled a scream as he pulled. Pains shot up and down her arm telling her it was probably either broken or badly bruised. Her brain struggled through the fog as she tried to remember where she was and why she was bleeding and aching all over.
Carlos! She straightened and tried to look around. Was he hurting Danny? Her son seemed to sense her fears and with a maturity well beyond his years, he comforted her.
“He’s gone. But he hurt you,” Danny told her.
“I’m okay,” she lied, trying, as always, to protect him from the truth. But this was worse than the last time which had been worse than the time before that which had been worse than the time before. She could remember them all. In a twisted measure of days, months and years, each marked a new ending and a new beginning of sorts. She had never doubted that she had done something wrong to deserve his anger, and she had never doubted she would survive. This time, she wasn’t so sure.
A searing pain, much deeper than all the others pierced through her, starting deep in her stomach and radiating out. She heard another scream and was surprised that it had come from her mouth.
“Mama . . .?” Danny’s voice was terrified.
The room began to swirl around her, and her vision blurred. Another pain doubled her over and she slid back to the floor.
Julie’s cell phone began ringing as she juggled a bag of groceries in one arm and inserted the key into her backdoor lock.
“Hold on, hold on, hold on . . .,” she chanted as she hurried inside, dropped the bag on the table and pulled her phone out of her purse.
“This is Julie,” she spoke into the small receiver.
“We’ve got a domestic and fire at 238 W. Maple Ave.,” the voice recited crisply.
“I heard it on my scanner.” As she spoke, Julie held the phone against her ear with her shoulder and jotted down the address on a piece of unopened mail. “I’m on my way.”
“I’ll notify the officers on-scene. What’s your ETA?”
“I’m pretty close. I’ll be there in ten.”
The line clicked off and Julie let the phone slide off her shoulder and into her hand. She grabbed the perishable items out of the bag and tossed them into the freezer or onto a shelf in the refrigerator and left the rest of the items to be put away later. She picked up her keys, checked to make sure her thin billfold was still in her pocket and left without bothering to take the address with her. She knew it by heart. She had been there before.
Less than ten minutes later, she found a parking space. It had been snowing off and on all day, and it had picked up again just before she arrived. Julie looped her scarf around her neck, buttoned her coat up, pulled on her gloves and got out of her car. A white ladder truck and an engine with the familiar DPD logo painted on it were parked directly in front of the house, their hoses snaked across the snow. The generators rumbled, spotlights focused their harsh beams on the action, radios crackled with sporadic chatter and firefighters shouted back and forth to each other as they focused a steady stream of water on the blaze that had gobbled up the left side of the house.
Julie quickened her pace as much as she dared on the icy sidewalk made worse by the steady flow of water that was draining from the house. An ambulance was at the end of the driveway. The backdoors were open and the stretcher was out.
“Hey Julie. Sorry to get you out on a night like this,” one of the cops said as he approached her. He flipped his little spiral notebook closed and tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket.
“Is she alive?” Julie held her breath, afraid of the answer.
“Barely. He beat the shit out of her . . . again.”
“No surprise there. Why can’t you guys put him away for good?”
The cop shrugged. “She always bails him out.”
“I thought she had a restraining order against him.”
“She does. But an RO is only paper. It doesn’t stop fists.”
Two paramedics pushed the stretcher down the driveway from the house. A thin blanket covered the woman’s prone body. Her young son walked beside it, his hand on his mom’s arm, a gesture that was probably reassuring for both of them. It wasn’t until she got closer that Julie noticed the rounded mound showing the woman was pregnant.
“Oh my God,” Julie cried and hurried over to the stretcher.
The woman looked up at her . . . or tried to. Her swollen and battered eyes clearly hampered her vision, but she was able to recognize Julie. An expression flashed across her face, one that was part embarrassment and part happiness to see someone she knew. “Julie . . . I know what you’re thinking . . . don’t be mad at me,” she said in a voice that shook with pain.
“Gloria, you don’t have to apologize to me . . . or to him,” Julie rushed to calm her. She gently took the woman’s hand and walked next to the stretcher as the two paramedics struggled pushing it through several inches of unshoveled snow and over the shattered remains of a sled.
“He didn’t mean to hurt me,” the woman told her.
Like hell he didn’t, Julie thought, but aloud she said, “How do you feel?”
Gloria lifted her other hand that already had an IV attached and rubbed her belly. “Not so good, but I’m most worried about my baby.”
Julie looked up at one of the paramedics and he shrugged. “They’re going to do everything they can to help you both,” she told the woman.
“I burned him with the iron. That’s why he got so mad,” Gloria continued, anxious that Julie know why the event had happened.
“You need to focus on yourself and your baby,” Julie spoke soothingly. “I’ll stay with Danny until someone comes. Have you called your mother?”
Gloria turned her head as if afraid of being overheard. “No, would you do that for me? Her number is in my phone . . . you know, the one you gave me. It’s hidden in the laundry room. Danny will show you.” She tried to give her son a smile, but she could manage only a stiff grimace.
The little boy looked at Julie and nodded shyly.
“We’ve got to go,” the female paramedic said as the stretcher reached the ambulance. She and her partner prepared the stretcher for loading and Julie reached out for Danny’s hand.
“Only my mother,” Gloria pleaded, twisting around and leaning toward Julie. “Don’t let him go with anyone else. Promise me.”
“Don’t worry about him. I promise I won’t leave him until your mother comes for him,” Julie assured her, and Gloria relaxed back against the cushion. The two women weren’t long-time friends or even acquaintances. Their relationship had started almost two years ago when Julie had responded to a domestic call. That one hadn’t resulted in hospitalization. But it had been the first in several similar events that had created a trust great enough that Gloria knew she could leave Danny in Julie’s care.
Danny trembled but didn’t pull his hand away as he watched his mother being loaded into the ambulance. The red and blue lights bounced off the surrounding trees and houses, magnified by the stark whiteness of the snow and turning the still-falling snowflakes into confetti. Julie looked down at the little boy whose gaze followed the twinkling lights as they disappeared down the street. She realized he wasn’t wearing a coat. She unbuttoned her own, took it off and knelt down in front of Danny. Even though it was much too large and drug on the ground, he burrowed gratefully into the warmth of the wool. Shivers of cold and lingering fear shook his tiny body. “They’re going to take good care of your mama. But right now we need to call your grandma. Can you tell me your mom’s secret hiding place?”
“It’s in the house,” he told her, then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “In the smelly things.”
Smelly things? Her mind scrambled for what that might mean. “Dirty clothes?” she asked.
“No, the good smelly things. You know, the ones with the little bear on the box,” he whispered back.
Good choice. Men like Carlos never did laundry, so it would be unlikely he would stumble on it there. Julie looked around. Apparently the fire was out. Smoke no longer billowed from the roof, and the firefighters were straightening out the hoses in preparation of rolling them back up. One of the firefighters walked out of the house with an axe swung over his shoulder. She lifted her hand and waved at him. She recognized him from several other fires she had been called out to.
He noticed and walked toward them. He was tall, well over six feet. Dressed in full firefighting uniform, he looked big and menacing, sort of like an urban alien. Steam radiated from his long black coat with its yellow reflective stripe and the top of his red helmet. He had an air canister strapped on his back, but he had unfastened his respirator and it hung off to one side. His face was smudged with a layer of carbon, marked with paths where sweat and water had streaked down. After giving Julie a crooked grin, he swung the axe to the ground and knelt in front of Danny, as if he knew what an imposing sight he must be.
“You must be Daniel,” he said to him. “I saw some amazing drawings on the refrigerator. I was hoping I would get to meet the artist. Were those yours?”
Danny nodded solemnly, but Julie could see that he was flattered.
“And that must have been your room with the race car posters.”
Again Danny nodded. “Did my room burn up?”
“No, we were able to stop the fire before it got to your room. But I’m afraid some of your things got a little wet and are going to smell like smoke.”
“How about my baseball cap? The doctor people made me and my mom leave so fast I didn’t get it.”
The firefighter said, “Oh yeah, I remember seeing a couple caps in there. They’ll be fine.” He took off his helmet and held it out to Danny. “Maybe you’d like to wear my hat.”
Danny’s brown eyes stretched wide. “Oh yes, sir.”
The man set the hat on the boy’s much smaller head and it settled down to cover his ears and his face all the way down to his nose. Instead of taking it off, Danny lifted his chin and looked out from underneath it. But most noticeable was the twitch of a smile that had softened his tense lips.
The firefighter stood and turned his attention to Julie. He pushed the heavy cloth hood off his head, revealing rumpled dark brown hair. As he looked at her, she was struck by the clarity of his bright blue eyes.
“You’re Julie, aren’t you?” he asked.
She was a little surprised that he knew her name because they had never actually spoken. But she wasn’t exactly a stranger to any of the public responders because she or one of her volunteers showed up at all of the more serious crime, fire or accident scenes. “Yes, I am. And you’re . . .?”
“Rusty,” he answered and pointed toward his last name that was printed on his jacket as he added, “Wilson. I’m sure you know my younger brothers.”
“Oh, so you’re that Wilson,” Julie teased. She was very well acquainted with his brothers. Sam was a Denver cop who she worked with often, and Chris, the youngest, was a paramedic out of Denver Health. He wasn’t one of the ones on scene tonight, but their paths had crossed often in the course of their jobs.
Rusty held up his hands. “Whoa, you can’t believe everything you hear about me.”
“Why do you assume it’s all bad?” she asked.
“Because some of it is true. I’m the first to admit that I enjoy life. But my brothers like to exaggerate my . . .,” he grinned, “. . . transgressions.”
Julie shrugged. This was not a point she wanted to debate in the middle of a snowy night when she was without a coat. “I was just wondering if someone could take me inside for a minute. I need to get Danny’s things and . . . well, something else.”
“Sure, I’ll take you in, but he needs to stay out here.” Rusty called over one of the other firefighters. “Jackson, would you hang with my friend Daniel for a few minutes?”
Jackson, a middle-aged black firefighter who had just finished shutting off the hydrant and screwing the cap back on, nodded and knelt down next to Danny. “Hey buddy. My name is Jackson. Do you mind keeping me company while they go get some of your clothes?”
Danny nodded, solemn again. He stayed, but his gaze moved back to Julie.
“Don’t let anyone take him away, okay?” she asked Jackson.
“Got cha,” Jackson confirmed.
After giving Danny a reassuring pat on the head, she turned to follow Rusty.
“Don’t forget my cap,” Danny called after her.
“I won’t,” she called back.
“Watch your step,” Rusty cautioned. He took a flashlight out of his utility belt and turned it on.
Apparently, the electricity was off and the spotlights didn’t penetrate past the front door. The dark house took on a sinister spook-house sort of feeling as they stepped over the threshold and into the smoldering interior.
“The fire didn’t make it to this part of the house, but the back two bedrooms are pretty much gone,” he added as they made their way around pieces of furniture that had been knocked over or tossed out of the way.
“Any idea what caused it?” she asked as she followed directly behind him, keeping her hand on his back because she couldn’t see anything outside the beam of his light.
“Looks like an iron on the carpet. But the investigators will find out for sure.”
They picked their way along the soggy carpet of the hallway. Even though the flames hadn’t made it into the hallway, the sheetrock was damp and there was a heavy, acrid smell that burned her lungs. When they arrived at Danny’s room, she hurried to collect his jacket and a few items of clothing, including his Little League baseball cap that was sitting on his chest of drawers. She also scooped up the stuffed monkey that held an obvious position of importance on his pillow and stuffed it all into his Cars backpack.
“We need to get out of here,” Rusty reminded her.
“I have one more thing,” she told him. “Did you happen to notice a laundry room?”
“Not in this part of the house. Maybe off the kitchen?” He led the way back down the hall and across the small living room to the kitchen. Sure enough, in the mud room that led outside was a small stackable washer and dryer that had probably been one of Gloria’s prized possessions. But Julie had eyes only for the box of Snuggle dryer sheets on the shelf next to it.
“Really?” Rusty asked when he saw her pick it up.
She didn’t answer, but pulled out the sheets until she reached the bottom of the box. Nestled there, just as Danny had told her was the emergency cell phone she had given Gloria the last time Julie had been called out to this house. It was something she often gave to victims of domestic abuse because their controlling spouse or partner often refused to let them have any contact with the outside world. She was glad to see that Gloria had listened to her cautions to hide the phone in a safe place where Carlos wouldn’t find it because Gloria clearly hadn’t paid any attention to Julie’s other advice to not let him back in her life. Julie held up the phone so Rusty could see it, then followed him out the backdoor and to the driveway.
Once back outside, she took deep, cleansing breathes of the crisp cold air. “I don’t know how you guys do it,” she admitted to Rusty.
He flashed her a grin, his teeth looking incredibly white against his soot-blackened face. “Are you kidding? I’d do this even if they didn’t pay me. But don’t tell anyone.”
Julie flipped open the phone, turned it on and watched as it booted up. “Hey thanks,” she told him.
“No problem.” His expression sobered. “You do good work, you know. They need someone like you to help them after all this.” He motioned around them at the devastation. Yes, they had saved most of the house, but the smoke and the water had ruined much of what the flames hadn’t consumed. These people had lost a lot, if not everything, and they would need all the help they could get.
“Hey Wilson. We’re ready to roll,” the captain called and gave Julie a wave of acknowledgement.
She and Rusty walked back to where Danny and Jackson waited. Rusty reached down and lifted his heavy helmet off of the boy’s head. “Thank you for taking care of my helmet for me. It looks good on you, but I’m going to need it in case I have to go to another fire tonight.”
“Sure,” Danny said with pride at having accomplished something so apparently important.
“Maybe you can get your mom to bring you by the fire station sometime when she feels better,” Rusty suggested. “I’ll give you a tour and let you sit in a fire truck.”
“Really? Wow, okay,” Danny agreed.
Rusty looked back at Julie. “And I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah, we seem to hang out at the same places.” She smiled. “Thanks again.” She nodded her head toward Danny, indicating that his kindness toward the little boy hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Rusty dismissed it with a shrug, but he gave her another grin as he put his helmet back on and headed toward the waiting fire truck.
“Julie, we’re finished, too,” the police officer who had been standing nearby talking to the captain told her.
“We can sit in my car and wait for his grandmother,” she suggested, but the officer shook his head.
“I can’t leave you here. It’s still a hot scene.”
Julie glanced around, suddenly nervous. “You mean he’s not in custody?” she asked while being careful to keep the conversation as neutral as possible.
“He was gone when we arrived, but you can bet he’ll come back.”
She shivered, not just because of the cold that was penetrating her heavy sweater. She had never actually met Carlos, but she had seen his handiwork on at least three occasions. “Let me make a quick call to Danny’s grandmother so she can be on her way.” She went to the Contacts’ list. There were only two numbers in it. Gloria’s mother and Julie’s cell phone. Even though she had encouraged Gloria to call her if Carlos came back, it was now clear that that hadn’t happened. She clicked on the word “Mom” and put the phone to her ear.
It rang five times before a sleepy voice answered, “Hello.”
Julie turned away so Danny couldn’t hear the conversation as she gave Gloria’s mother a quick summary of the evening’s events. “I’m taking Danny to the police station. We’ll wait for you there.” She gave the woman the address, and after getting her confirmation, Julie hung up.
“Okay, Danny, we’re going to get to ride in a police car. Have you ever done that before?”
He shook his head, but there was a spark of excitement in his eyes.
“But first, I’m going to trade you coats,” she told him. She released his parka from his backpack where she had clipped it and handed it to him. He took off her coat, and they exchanged outerwear. She welcomed the warmth as she slipped her arms into the sleeves and buttoned it up. Danny had a little trouble with his zipper, so she helped him get it started, then reached into the backpack and pulled out his cap. The first genuine smile of the night spread across his face as he put it on and tugged it into position. She didn’t even need a voiced “thanks” because his expression said it all.
The police officer unlocked the doors of his cruiser and opened the backdoor for them. Julie glanced back at her white Kia that was parked down the street. She knew it was city policy that she couldn’t carry civilians in her personal vehicle and she had promised not to leave Danny’s side until his grandmother arrived. That left her no choice but to ride with him in the patrol car to the station. She would worry about getting a ride back to pick it up later. Since Danny’s grandmother lived in Fort Collins, it would take her several hours to get dressed and drive to the station.
The spotlights that had illuminated the scene switched off as the fire trucks prepared to leave. With only the red and blue emergency lights still flashing, the night seemed darker and the shadows deeper. Julie glanced around. She had the uncomfortable feeling that Carlos was there, out of sight, but watching as she took his son away from him, hopefully forever. She shivered again and silently urged Danny to hurry up. She wanted to be inside the safety of the cruiser.
As soon as he was inside, she climbed in after him and tried not to notice the telltale smell of urine and vomit that usually clung in the air of the back seats of all the patrol cars. It had been a long day and was turning out to be a long night. But she, like Rusty, loved her job and would rather be here than any place she’d ever been. Only she knew how desperate she was to never go back.