Sam muttered useless curses while her trembling fingers automatically dialed. Her whole body shook as she held the phone to her ear. At first, all she could hear was the rushing of blood as it pumped through her temples, but then she heard a woman’s voice.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
Sam gripped the phone harder, unable to speak. “Help,” she finally squeaked.
The operator asked other questions, but while Sam was able to form the answers in her mind, she couldn’t get them out in words. She had studied all forms of stress and trauma disorders while in college, but at the moment, she didn’t know how to make herself function.
She was frozen inside, unable to process what was happening. It seemed to take forever to form a thought, and even longer to react. She rose shakily on legs that didn’t feel up to the task of holding her up. The blood drained from her head at the abrupt motion, and sparkly shadows encroached on her vision. She put her hand out, gripping the cold brick to steady herself.
She looked back toward the body, but didn’t let herself actually see the poor woman lying there. Instead, she stumbled into the restaurant, still carrying the phone with the 911 operator prompting her for answers.
The smile fell off Anthony’s face as she hurried up to him, waving toward the alley. While she couldn’t form words, she tried her best to communicate the terror she was feeling.
Grabbing her phone, he ran out the door as he spoke to the operator. Sam followed and pointed toward the woman, and this time her gaze moved straight to the woman’s still body.
Sam saw her. Saw everything. The woman’s hair was blonde, about the same shade as her own, but discolored by the dark puddle surrounding her head.
Anthony immediately spun Sam around and wrapped his arms around her, protecting her from the sight.
But she would never be able to erase it from her mind.
Time moved both too fast and incrementally slow as the sound of sirens filled the chilly night air. Soon, hordes of police cars packed the alley, followed by an ambulance.
She could hear the rumble of Anthony’s voice talking to the responders, but she didn’t know what he said. She stared at the blue and red lights as they reflected off the wall, making everything surreal.
He left her standing with one of the officers as he ran inside a few times and then came back to check on her. She vaguely heard him tell her he had closed the restaurant and was ready to go with her to the police station. She wanted to thank him, but again, her brain was too numb to get the words out.
She’d always thought she was tough. Growing up with a mother who’d brought home a lot of disreputable men had made her that way out of survival. Sam had thought she was prepared to handle any type of situation, but she wasn’t handling anything at the moment.
A woman was dead, and Sam had done nothing to help.
Granted, it had only taken a few short moments, and Sam most likely would have become the gunman’s second victim, but nevertheless, the weight of guilt bore down on her shoulders.
The best she could do for the woman now was to help the police find the killer and bring him to justice.
“Your name and some ID?” the officer asked.
“Samantha Hutchinson.” Her voice sounded far away, and her hands fumbled while getting the ID out of her wallet. She was glad for Anthony’s help. After the cop made a few notes, he handed back her driver’s license and asked her to come with him.
With a nod, she let Anthony lead her to the police car. He was her boss, but he was also a great friend. She appreciated the warmth of his arm around her as she tried desperately to think of clues that would be helpful. Nothing came to her. It was as if a rain shower had washed away all her memories of the event that had happened only a half hour before.
She could remember drink orders and pizza toppings all night long, but at the moment, she couldn’t remember what the killer looked like. All she could recall was the size of his gun.
Anthony whispered soothing words and patted her hand the whole way, but she was numb. The night had been chilly, not overly cold, but she couldn’t stop shivering. She managed to give him her phone’s passcode so he could call her best friend Nikki. He left a message telling her, “Sam is fine, but she needs your help.”
It was a lie. Sam wasn’t fine.
Not by a longshot. She was falling apart on the inside, but was too frozen on the outside for anyone to notice. Worse, the numbness was fading and she started to feel all the things she’d been avoiding. The fear, the anger, and especially the helplessness. Her mind wouldn’t stop. She kept trying to think of something she could have done.
At the police station, she was brought into a room with dingy, green walls. She sat in a navy-blue chair in front of a metal desk and focused on her breathing. Anthony was sitting next to her, holding her hand and rubbing an irritating circle on her skin with his thumb. She wanted to pull her hand away because it was uncomfortable, but she was afraid her arm might break if she moved it. Afraid everything would break if she moved, at all.
“Ms. Hutchinson?” There was a man sitting at the desk now. She wasn’t sure if she’d missed him when she’d walked in, or if he’d just sat down. “I’m Detective Richards.”
She looked up at him and tried to focus. There was something she needed to know first. “Is she… Is that woman going to be okay?”
Deep down, Sam knew the answer already. She wasn’t an idiot. She’d seen enough movies and TV crime dramas to know when someone shot another person in the head at close range, they would never be okay.
“I’m sorry. She passed,” he told her, straightening some papers in front of him.
Passed. It sounded like he was talking about a test, or what happened on the highway when someone was going too slowly. It wasn’t the right word for being dragged out of a car and shot twice at close range.
Tears welled up in Sam’s eyes.
“Did you know her?” the detective asked.
She shook her head as Anthony squeezed her shoulders. “It’s okay, Sam,” he encouraged.
“We haven’t confirmed the victim’s ID yet, but the license in her purse was for a Heather Riddell. Does that name ring any bells?”
Sam shook her head again as Anthony said, “I didn’t recognize her, either.”
“Ms. Hutchinson, can you tell me what you saw?”
She opened her mouth to speak, to give them the information needed to put that monster away, but her throat was so dry, only scratchy whispers emerged.
“I’ll get you something to drink.” The detective abruptly rose and left the room, his movements so quick she jumped.
She jumped again when her phone rang with Nikki’s ringtone from inside Anthony’s pocket. He rushed out to the hall to take the call as the detective handed Sam a can of soda with a straw.
After she took a few sips, the detective cleared his throat. “Ms. Hutchinson?” he said, getting her attention again. “Let’s go through it slowly. Tell me what you saw.”
She nodded and began telling the story, starting with how Lance had broken up with her by text. Explaining why she was in the alley, sitting on the ground and crying, to begin with.
She told him how she’d heard a noise, and had seen a woman being dragged out of a black car. Then the part where she heard the gunshots and the woman stopped moving. Once she was able to speak, she couldn’t seem to stop. Every detail of what happened came rushing out of her.
She explained how the gun sounded. How it didn’t make loud cracks, but airy, whizzing sounds.
“A silencer, most likely,” the detective said. Which also explained why it had looked so long as he’d put it back in his coat. “So, you saw him?”
“What?” She blinked in confusion.
“You saw him put the gun back in his coat. You know his suit coat was black. You saw him.”
All the details seemed to float out into the ether, leaving her with nothing. Of course she’d seen him. She must have. She squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to draw up the image of the man, but all she could see was the gun as he tucked it inside his coat. She shook her head and tried again.
She must have seen his face. Why wouldn’t her brain work?
“All I can remember is the gun. I’m not sure if I saw his face. I was too focused on the girl and the size of the gun. I’m so sorry,” she said.
Fear and guilt washed over her and she rubbed her temples. She hadn’t been able to stop this woman, Heather Riddell, from being killed, and now her faulty brain was going to fail her in death.
“It’s okay,” said Richards. “Don’t try too hard with his face. Let’s back up. You said his suit was black?”
She understood this tactic. She had taken psychology in college. Asking too many questions too quickly made a person shut down. She tried not to shut down. She needed to be strong so she could help find the man and bring him to justice for what he’d done. For Heather.
“Yes. I’m pretty sure. It was dark.”
“Do you remember his size? Think about the suit. Was he broad across the shoulders? Thin? Tall?”
She thought about it. “Tall. He seemed to tower over her as he pointed the gun. I don’t remember if he was thin, but he wasn’t fat. He must have been strong. He pulled her out of the car with one hand.”
“Let’s talk about the car. What kind of car was it?”
“Black?” he repeated, as if he expected her to change her mind.
A black suit, a black car in a black alley. She could maybe see why he was skeptical.
“It was definitely black. With chrome door handles. A sedan.”
“License plate?” the detective asked hopefully.
“No. I couldn’t see the back of the car. The dumpster was blocking it. I could only see the front passenger side.”
She frowned. She was being no help at all. “I’m sorry, I’m trying.” She glanced up at the clock above his head. It was nearly eleven. It felt like it could have been eleven the next morning.
“It’s okay. You’re doing an excellent job,” the detective reassured her.
She wasn’t doing an excellent job. She’d remembered all the unimportant things like the sound the gun made and how long it was, but she couldn’t remember what the man looked like or the license plate number. She was useless.
Just then, Nikki burst into the room.
“Sam! Are you all right? Anthony told me what happened. I had to get someone to give me a ride. Are you okay?”
Nikki didn’t stop the questions long enough for Sam to answer.
“You look like hell,” Nikki said, and turned to the detective. “Can she go home now? Look at her. She’s exhausted.”
“I have a few more questions, then you may go.”
Nik nodded and took the seat next to her while Anthony hovered by the door. “Do you have her? I was going to head out,” Anthony said as he handed Nikki Sam’s phone.
“Yes. Thanks for calling me.”
Detective Richards asked his other questions, most of which Sam couldn’t answer.
When he finished, he stood. “Usually, when we find a dead girl in an alley, she’s a prostitute. But we haven’t come up with a rap sheet for Heather Riddell, and she wasn’t dressed like a hooker. Plus, the fancy car and the silencer lead me to believe this was more than a john who couldn’t come up with the money after the fun was over.”
His bluntness should have bothered Sam, but she was so tired she probably wouldn’t have understood if he’d tried to sugarcoat it.
“I’ll have an officer drive you to your car so you can go home and get some rest. Tomorrow you can come in and look through the mug books. Maybe something will jog your memory.”
She nodded, hoping he was right.
Nikki helped her up. She felt stiff from sitting so long. Detective Richards called for a patrol car to take her to the pizza shop where her car was parked. She and Nikki sat silently in the backseat like they were guilty of something.
Sam was guilty.
She should have thought more quickly. She should have used her phone to get a photo of the man or the license plate, but she’d panicked and blown it.
As she stared out the window, berating herself, a Metrobus came up next to them at a stoplight. She just about threw up. The man in the photo on the side of the bus…
Oh my God.
He was the killer.