Chapter 1 – Natasha
“Ms. Barnes, I know that someone told you that you would be arrested, but I promise you, they were lying. You were a victim of a scam, and they are not going to contact you again. If anyone was going to be making an arrest, it would be me and you have done nothing wrong.” Besides being naïve, I thought.
I paused to allow the inconsolable woman on the phone to repeat, one more time, how upset she was. Of course she was upset. She sent five thousand dollars via Western Union to a scam artist whom I would never be able to locate. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do my job. The money was wired to a remote location and immediately wired again, if not a few more times before it landed in a bank outside of the United States.
These particular cases frustrated me to no end. Internet scams were a dime a dozen these days, and for the most part, all I could do was make a record of the information. I’d send the victims over to the Internet Crime Complaint Center and tell them to file a report there. More and more people were becoming victims of scams, but no matter how much I preached to our residents or posted warnings on our social media pages, more victims called in each week.
My desk was strewn with papers and I scanned the surface as she repeated the story as if I hadn’t already heard it four other times. I had three cases I needed to type follow-up reports for and two people to call in for interviews on a theft investigation. I sighed quietly and tapped my pen on the beige Formica top of my desk as I forced myself back to the one-sided conversation.
The portable police radio crackled on the corner of my desk and I glanced at it. They were calling one of my patrol officers.
“Unit Sixteen Sam Four, I know you are busy, but we have an accident, serious, pending for you.” The female voice came through the air along with static. I tuned out Ms. Barnes and listened to see if the officer was able to break off from what he was working on, or not.
“Sixteen Sam Four, I copy, can you see if another unit can assist on that. I’m going to be tied up here for a little while,” Sergeant Jerry Johnson, one of the two officers working the street this afternoon, answered. I snatched the portable radio off my desk. I was saved.
“Sixteen David Sixty-One, I’ll take that,” I replied as I put the microphone to my mouth.
“Ms. Barnes, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I have to go. We have an emergency that I need to respond to.” I heard her say okay, but the phone was already on its way back to its rest. I could apologize for my abrupt end later.
I stuck my arms into the sleeves of my patrol jacket while I made my way to the exit door, and heard the dispatcher advise that it was one car in a ditch with two occupants. I acknowledged her transmission and jumped into my silver unmarked Chevy Impala.
If you saw the vehicle drive by you’d have no idea it was a police vehicle, even the antennas were hidden and not bubbled up on the roof or trunk like many patrol cars. I snapped my red and blue lights onto my visor and flipped it down before turning on my rear and flashing headlights. A black sedan swerved to the side when he saw my lights and heard my siren and I sped off around him.
The accident was only a few miles away and as I pulled up to the scene, there were four cars blocking traffic. People milled along the edge of the roadway looking down the embankment. What idiot said this was a ditch? This was a thirty-foot drop down to a creek, not a ditch.
“Sixteen David Sixty-One, I’m on location. Would you please get our on-call tow company en route?” I asked my dispatcher as I swung my car door open and climbed out. I heard her acknowledgement as my mind switched gears..
A man wearing dirty work pants and heavy boots ran to me. “They were driving too fast, a deer ran out in front of them, and they couldn’t make the curve.”
I nodded, not particularly caring how the accident happened at the moment, only concerned with the occupants of the vehicle. “Are the people inside all right?” I questioned as we approached the edge of the asphalt. The guardrail had been peeled back as if it was made of tin foil and not steel.
“Don’t know. No one has gone down to check on them. It’s a long way down,” he stated.
Crap, it was a long way down, and muddy. I searched the embankment for a path that would allow me to work my way down without killing myself. A thin tree about five inches in diameter had been plowed over by the car, but it still looked as if the roots were secure. I grabbed a hold of it and started to descend.
As my hands gripped the damp tree bark, I realized I should have put my gloves on before I started down. I almost fell a time or two, but finally managed to get to the bottom and to the black sedan that was nose first in the creek.
With the angle of the car, I couldn’t see into the driver’s side window, so I approached the passenger side and realized that the only way I’d be able to reach the door was to step into the creek. Damn it! There goes my brand new boots, I growled to myself.
I shuddered as my foot sank into the current. The cold water gushed over the top of my boot and down inside and I was tempted to turn around and go back to the edge, but I didn’t. Duty first, comfort second.
The rear passenger door was locked and I banged on the window to get the attention of the two occupants. “Shit,” I muttered when neither of them moved. I moved closer to the front door, and a female passenger with shoulder-length brown hair, around my age, was staring sight unseen out the side window. I didn’t need the coroner to tell me that the glazed look in her eyes was caused by death. Blood trickled from a cut on her face, but since she was no longer alive, the drops that ran over her skin looked more like slow tears than a serious head wound.
Beyond the female, a man sat in the driver’s seat. His head back against the headrest made his Adam’s apple protrude further than normal. I scrutinized his throat, just before his jaw line. Right under his ear I saw the flesh moving with his pulse. “Thank God,” I said as I wiggled the passenger door handle and found it locked, too.
My key ring had this handy-dandy little yellow tool that when you slammed it the right way against a car window it would shatter it. At least that was what it was supposed to do. To my knowledge, no one in my department had ever used theirs before. I guess this window was going to be the guinea pig.
I gripped the small tool tightly in my fist. I thought about the fact that I didn’t have gloves on again, and took a deep breath as I focused on the window. Sirens grew closer as I brought my hand back and slammed it against the glass. The window shattered down onto my feet and the inside of the car.
“Holy crap, it really does work.” With my keys back in my pocket, I used my elbow to clear away enough glass so I could put my hand through and open the door.
“Child locks, of course,” I muttered as I tried the handle inside and it lifted without doing anything. I used my elbow to clear away the rest of the glass and glanced up the hill. More people stood there, a few of them holding out cell phones—probably videotaping the whole thing. Great, my ass was about to be on film.
I half-dove and half-shimmied through the window, trying to ignore the remnants of glass that dug into my legs. I would have a dozen cuts on my thighs when this was over.
Once inside, a large black duffle bag sat haphazardly on the seat and I shoved it out of my way so I could sit behind the driver’s seat. The man groaned as I touched his neck. Groaning was a good thing. My chest pressed up against the back of his seat and I gripped his head slowly on both sides to straighten his neck. I was stuck doing c-spine until someone else got down here with a collar. Something wet touched my fingers and I twisted to see around the side of the headrest. Great, now I had blood on my hands. I absently wondered if I had any cuts to be concerned about.
A mixture of adrenaline and wet feet brought shivers to my body. With a long inhale, I forced myself to calm down. By the time emergency personnel got down to the car, near convulsions racked my body and I fought to control them while keeping the guy’s neck straight. Why couldn’t it have been June instead of March?
“Hey, Foster, what do you have in there?” one of the firemen yelled from outside of the car as he peered inside.
“Passenger is DOA. Driver is still alive, been unconscious since I got here.” He nodded and turned to yell up the hill.
The driver tried to shift his head but I held it tightly. “Stay still, you’re gonna be all right. You just need to stay still.” My tone was soft while I leaned around the headrest and got closer to his ear. He tried to lean his head toward my voice; that again was a good sign, but I didn’t let him complete the action.
A few firemen slid down the hill and began setting up ropes to bring down the tools and pull the medical board back up.
One of the EMTs came around the passenger side and started unwrapping a collar. “You gonna be able to get this on him? Or do you need to me to get in there with you?”
“No, Atkins, I can get it. The car was unstable when I was climbing in. I think if you tried, it might shift the car further into the water.”
He nodded his acknowledgement and leaned in to get the collar ready to hand to me. I was going to have to do this one handed, but it could be done. While I was putting the brace around his neck, Atkins felt for a pulse on the passenger. I heard his sigh and knew I’d been correct in my earlier assumption.
The brace was secured and other than a few moans escaping from the driver, it was silent in the car. I watched the heavy equipment coming down the slope and being set up. The driver’s door must be damage if they were going to cut the car apart to get the occupants out.
Clanking came from under the car and I stiffened. Atkins turned to me and yelled that they were going to stabilize the vehicle with a winch and pull it out of the creek so they could cut into the car.
I blew out a breath and a visible plume rose in front of my eyes reminding me how cold it was. My feet didn’t need the reminder, they were now numb.
I glanced around the inside of the car. The dark leather interior was impressive. I peered over the driver’s shoulder, a Mercedes. First time I’d ever been in one. I scanned the interior. “And I thought my Ford Explorer had a lot of gizmos in it.”
My gaze landed on the passenger and I wondered who she was. Was this his wife? Had they been away on a holiday or rushing off someplace else? What did she do for a living? Did she have children?
That question stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t want to think about there being children out there who no longer had a mother. I returned my gaze out the window and passed the next few minutes watching the firemen. At the top of the hill, two patrol guys spoke to bystanders; at least they could take it from here. Once the motorist was out of the car, I could turn the scene over to them and allow them to do the investigation.
Atkins turned to me. “You ready?” he asked from the far side window. In his outstretched hand was a sheet.
“Yeah.” I took one hand off the driver’s neck and grabbed the sheet, shaking it out and draping it over the two of us. This was not the first time I had been inside a car while it was being cut apart. The last time, I’d been in the driver’s seat and someone else had been sitting where I was now, holding me so that I wouldn’t jerk when the loud noises started.
I yelled out that we were ready after I’d secured the cover to protect us from flying glass and pieces of plastic. I let my head fall against the headrest and stared down at the floor. The edge of the sheet lay over the duffle bag. Something was poking out of the open zipper. I strained my gaze in the late afternoon light to see what it was.
I was about to pull the zipper back a little further when the Jaws of Life roared outside the car and I jumped. The guy in the front seat did, too, so I clamped his head with both of my hands. “It’s okay, stay still. It will be over in a minute.”
A loud screech of the metal tearing was like someone running nails down a chalkboard. For someone who hated not knowing what was going on around them, being hidden under a sheet while others worked with loud tools had my heart hammering against my rib cage.
The firemen kept working on the vehicle, and a few moments later, they popped the roof off and removed the door. Several people converged on the motorist and I was finally able to release my hold.
Without a thought, I wiped the blood off my left hand onto the sheet and reached for the duffle bag. I pulled the zipper open about five inches and leaned down to look inside.
“Hey, Foster,” I heard over my shoulder, but I didn’t turn around. I was staring wide-eyed into the bag.
“Tasha.” The sound of my first name brought my head up. “You all right? We can take it from here.”
“I think I’m going to stick around, Jerry,” I said as I met his familiar eyes.
I nodded down to the bag near my feet. “Because there are several thousand dollars in hundreds in this bag and it’s going to need to be counted and put into evidence for safekeeping.”
“Several thousand?” he said, and stretched to look down into the foot well beside me. “Maybe more like several hundred thousand,” I said as we both gawked at the bundles of money inside the bag.