Had the nosy neighbor not called it in, the whole situation might have gone unreported. The lights had been off in the faded frame house next door for several days. The small girl who lived there with her grandmother had not been waiting at curbside for the school bus. The caller’s concern was not benevolent. He was worried the occupants had been killed by a gas leak and that the whole neighborhood might blow up.
Dispatch sent out Peterson, portly and balding with thirty years in patrol. He’d earned a reputation of being tough enough to eat the silverware. Polski, his rookie partner had only been on the street four months. After no answer to knocks all around, Peterson was looking for a door to kick in when Polski found an unlocked side window. She climbed in and let Peterson in the front door. The interior smelled of wet diapers and overflowing toilets.
Peterson led with flashlight in hand. Polski, slender beneath thick black hair, drew her pistol. Peterson motioned her to put it away.
They followed the slight noise from down the hall. The little girl was perhaps eight, but so frail and emaciated, she appeared transparent. By candlelight, she sat, wrapped in a ragged blanket, reading from a tattered book of prayers. Peterson’s trained eye saw the emaciated old lady in the bed had been dead several days.
“She ain’t been able to talk,” the child said softly. “Can y’all help us to the clinic.”
Polksi, young, and handy with kids, coaxed her out into the hall. She handed the child a freebie candy from the Mexican restaurant on the main drag. The kid devoured it like a hungry dog.
The M.E.’s night agent showed up surprisingly quickly. Tall, morose, with thick glasses, his give a damn factor had faded even further than Peterson’s over the years.
“Deader ‘n hell alright, Peterson…maybe a week or so like you say. So skinny, she ain’t givin’ off that God awful stink they usually do. Nuthin’ in her bowels to discharge at death. Sorta petrified.” He chopped off his horselaugh when he saw Peterson eyeing him. Peterson was nobody to tick off.
He coughed, “I…uh, need to call the morgue wagon.”
Polski stepped in and caught Peterson’s eye. “What about the girl?”
“County General first, then social services steps in.” He looked at her in the dim light. “Kiddo, I don’t like it either, but you can’t take her home with you.”
The M.E., overhearing said, “Hell she’s gonna croak anyway. Pretty far gone from starvation and I suspect she has pneumonia. You two do see the problem here, I hope?”
He gestured beneath the foot of the old lady’s bed where a fat kitten lay sleeping beside a bowl.
“Fed the damned cat and starved themselves to death…stupid riff raff. Or hey, maybe the kid starved the old woman. Y’all could charge her with murder,” he morphed into the idiotic laugh again.
Peterson spoke softly to the man, but the edge in his voice was ominous, “Maybe you oughta wait outside.”
The district sergeant walked in. “Dispatch says you got a hell of a mess here.”
Peterson nodded, mindful his superior didn’t see the tears clouding the iron man’s vision.
The sergeant said, “Ambulance just pulled up out front. Peterson, you ride in the wagon with the kid. Polski, you follow in your squad car. We’ll transfer the kid to juvenile later. “
The emergency team met the ambulance. Tender hands boosted the girl onto a gurney. The intern shined his penlight in her eyes, then probed her chest with his stethoscope.
“Peterson, this kid is dead. If the body wasn’t so warm, I’d swear she’s been gone two days. Another county burial.”
Peterson, eyes cold, turned to Polski. “Call the Sarge and tell him we won’t be transferring her to Juvenile.”
When Polski’s shift ended at midnight, she drove to the tragic scene and entered via flashlight, through the same open window. The kitten was still snoozing beside her bowl.
“Sweetheart, you’re gonna live at my house where’s plenty of food for both of us.” The snoozing creature cuddled into her arms, still asleep.by