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Buchanan and Tonya

by Gary Clifton

“Buchanan,” Homicide Detective Tom Buchanan answered the screeching cellular. His wife of thirty years had been killed in an automobile accident the year before. Although he was alone in the house, he couldn’t quite break the knee-jerk habit of grabbing the phone before it woke her.

“You asleep?” It was Tonya Williams, his rookie detective partner.

Buchanan switched on a table lamp and swung his feet to the floor. “What’s wrong, Tonya? Are you hurt?” The question was common in the police business, especially at 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

* * *

Tonya Williams was a tiny little thing to be a cop. Growing up in the vast ghetto on the far east side, where most kids never finished high school and many ended up in trouble, Tonya had kicked the usual impediments aside and opted for a life of wrestling drunks and jailing screw-ups.

Then, after only three years after she had put on the uniform, the brass promoted her into Homicide. “A token black female,” the lieutenant whispered when he assigned the new kid as Buchanan’s partner. “Won’t last long.” He scratched his nose knowingly with the back of a hand.

Buchanan eyed him without retort. It was his style to see the evidence before making assumptions. A plainspoken cop hardened by many years of experience, he had cultivated a reputation for never showing emotion, even the slightest waver in his outward, calm countenance.

Buchanan had now been Tonya’s partner and training officer for four months. She’d proven as bright as the morning sun: quick to volunteer, street-smart, handy in a pleasant way with redneck cops and street thugs alike.

They were on call that Saturday night. Protocol was pretty plain: Dispatch had strict orders that any homicide calls be directed to him, and he, in turn, would relay the assignment to his young partner.

* * *

He sensed instantly that the system had short-circuited somehow, and Tonya had responded to a murder without him. If she’d gotten injured or into some other negative situation, the lieutenant would be furious at both of them, no matter the circumstances.

“Tonya, please don’t tell me you answered a homicide call without me taggin’ along?”

“Sorry, Buchanan, I wanted to let you sleep. But God, you gotta come down here. Fire in the dormitory of the St. Rose Orphanage. Fire department at first said arson, and they called us, but they’ve just told me it’s only electrical. We still gotta work the scene, and I’m not sure I can...”

“Dammit, kid. The lieutenant finds out you took a night call by yourself, we’ll be writing reports for two weeks.” Then he soothed his tone. “But don’t worry, he won’t know.”

“Mother of God, Tom, children all burned up and stuck together. Fire Department says they think ten bodies. Sweet Jesus, how do you get used to this?” Her voice trailed into a sob. “Can you come... now?”

“On the way, partner.”

Buchanan dressed and drove pedal to the metal, rolling up amidst the gaggle of emergency vehicles within twenty minutes. This was not his first go-around. He pulled on his rubber boots and stuffed a flashlight into his belt. He had dug out a hundred mutilated corpses, maybe more. The kid needed support, and Buchanan could give it to her.

The sticky heat of Dallas in August, even before dawn, held the sickening odor of burned building and roasted human flesh. Tonya was standing near what had been a front door, talking with two uniformed firefighters.

She quickly turned away, cornering Buchanan on the sidewalk. In the flickering light of generators, her normally pretty face was, this morning, a portrait of agony. What she’d seen inside was obviously all the load she could handle at this stage in her career. Tough homicide cops learn to roll with the flow and hide the shock and horror. She’d learn soon enough.

“Not sure I can go back in,” her voice quivered. She handed him the Nikon camera. “Suppose you can get a few file shots?”

Buchanan took the camera, motioned her to stay, and waded into the debris.

A tangle of little bodies, charred black, fire-welded together, unrecognizable, was glutted just inside the door. Security had dictated it be kept locked both ways, against both wanderers from within and intruders from without. No one had ever thought to provide an exit in case of fire.

The medical examiner and two helpers were pulling bodies from the pile, using a chrome-plated tool to separate them where the inferno had fused them together.

The pry-bar made a squishy sound when they extricated all or part of a kid. A partial torso, trailing entrails, hit the floor with a plop like a wet towel smacking concrete.

“Oops,” the M.E. chuckled, and one of the helpers laughed like a drunk hyena.

Buchanan held the assistant’s gaze until the man found interest in studying his feet. Without uttering a word, Buchanan meticulously photographed the scene, then walked out.

* * *

He sat on the curb, dry-heaving, his stomach already voided of solid material. Tonya leaned down and gripped his shoulder. What the hell can I to say to the Iron Man?

“It’s okay, Buchanan. The smell in there would make anybody sick.” She patted her partner’s back, stunned that he had his limitations. The book said he was supposed to counsel her, not the other way around. Somehow, things had suddenly changed.

“Touch of stomach flu, Tonya.” He looked up. Tears reflected in the dim light. “I’ll be okay in a minute.”

“Partner,” she said softly, “there’s nothing more we can do here right now. What say we walk over to the Red Cross van for a cup of coffee?”

“Okay, but I’m not seeing so good right now... the smoke.”

You and me both, she thought.

Reaching down to help him to his feet, she hooked her arm through his and they walked toward the van. She leaned against his shoulder and thought, God, I hope I can come even close to living up to this old man’s reputation.

Feeling her young head against him, he thought, This kid has so much more on the ball than I do. She’ll go far in her career in spite of the shortcomings she’s seen in me.

“Two coffees, please,” he said to the attendant. “Black for me and the usual cream and sugar for my partner here. Right, Tonya?”

Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton

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