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False Start

by Gary Clifton

Detective Maggs Williams attracted the usual quota of male attention when she swayed across the squad room. She tossed a folder on Detective Davis McCoy’s desk. “Lieutenant says we gotta take a look at this.”

McCoy spun the folder around. “Fire... Homicide?”

“No finding of homicide, but seven dead... Father, mother, five kids, one survivor. The boss says go, we go. Fire card there shows accidental origin. I’m drivin’.”

* * *

A pile of burned debris was prominent amidst a row of small, rundown houses strung along a bank above street level, accessible by age-worn concrete steps. Faces visible through a few shaded windows were mute evidence that neighbors were aware of the tragedy but had no intention of becoming involved.

An emaciated boy of about twelve was sitting on the steps, clad in blue jeans, worn high-top leather shoes and a soot-covered t-shirt. His hands, evidently burned, had been bandaged.

Maggs pointed with her chin. “Guess that’s our survivor. McCoy, where the hell is everyone? Responding patrol squads should have either transported the kid to Children’s Protective Services or left a uniform here till they showed up. Somebody needs their ass chewed.”

Maggs stepped over to the youngster and tapped him on a shoulder. “Police officers. Stick tight, son, we need to talk to you.”

Maggs and McCoy climbed past the distraught youth, who was sobbing into his bandages. A chilly North Texas December wind ruffled his hair. After giving the fire scene a quick examination, they walked back down to the boy. He was still crying.

Maggs took out her notebook. “What’s your name, son?” She handed him a tissue.

“Uh... Willard. Willard Meeks, but the kids around here call me ‘Muscles’ ‘cuz I’m so skinny.”

McCoy and Maggs exchanged glances. Maggs asked, “Muscles, huh. All your brothers and sister... were they slender, too?”

“Sisters only... All five. We’re purdy poor.” He shot his face upward, defensively. “Dad worked when he could. He had this drinkin’ problem. Mom couldn’t read... couldn’t find no work.”

McCoy thumbed their folder. “Your dad would be Frank L. Roberts? Your mama was... is Clarine Roberts?”

“Yessir.” He collected himself slightly. “Stepdad. You need my sisters’ names?”

“No, we have them.” McCoy closed the folder. “Willard, did the sergeant — the man in uniform — give you any reason why he didn’t leave someone to stay with you or talk to you about somebody helping you?”

“Uh... no sir.”

Maggs asked, “What did the police say to you?”

“I walked down the street. Set on the curb. People was runnin’ up and down our steps.”

Maggs asked, “Did any of them ask you how the fire started?” She looked up at McCoy, troubled.

“, after them ambulance guys bandaged my hands, I didn’t talk to nobody else.”

McCoy asked, “Willard, the report shows the first alarm reached the fire department at 2:07 a.m. Were you in bed?”

“Uh... yeah.” The answer was even more forced than before.

“Where did you sleep?” Maggs asked, craning her neck to look up at the debris. “There could only be two bedrooms.”

“Porch... I slept on the back porch. Dad had closed it in.”

Maggs and McCoy, veterans, both saw it. The kid’s expression, an emptiness of despair, was contagious. Both hesitated, avoiding the logical question.

McCoy asked at last: “You were in bed at 2:07 a.m., Willard, but you’re fully dressed with scorched soot on your shirt. Are your hands burned?”


Maggs stopped him. “It was an accident, Willard. We understand.”

McCoy added: “Playing with fire maybe, Willard?”

“No... no, I’d never—”

Careful to avoid an edge in his voice, McCoy said, “You didn’t move to other steps, Willard. You hid from the police. That’s why they didn’t help you.”

Willard collapsed back into tears.

Maggs looked long and hard at McCoy, then back to Willard. “Detective McCoy asked you about playing with fire. You didn’t mean to start the fire did you? You were out back on the porch and...?

“Couldn’t sleep, cuz I was hungry. We all was. I couldn’t sleep. I found that book of matches on the sidewalk down on the avenue yesterday. Jes’ lightin’ ’em for somethin’ to do. Burned my finger and dropped one.” He broke into sobs again.

Maggs patted his shoulder.

McCoy said, “We understand. You had no idea that fire would spread so fast. At first you tried to put it out with your hands” — he gestured to the bandages — “but then it was too late.”

Willard choked out, “My sisters... I can still hear them screaming. Am I gonna go to prison?”

Maggs looked away. McCoy said, “Prison? Naw.”

Maggs said, “Willard, we can’t just leave you sitting here. We need to carry you to a facility where you can get a bath.”


She forced a smile. “Hospital... yeah, sorta.”

“I never been in no hospital, ma’am.”

McCoy laid a gentle hand on Willard’s shoulder. “We passed a burger joint just up the way here. I’m hungry. How about you, Willard?”

They eased Willard into the back seat of their car and stood on the curb. Maggs studied McCoy’s hard face. “Fire department says accidental fire. That means they found no cause.”

McCoy rubbed his brow. “Well, it was an accident. Anything else is extra paperwork. Not a damned thing to gain by outing the kid. He’s deep enough in self-blame. Let’s get outta this damned wind. I need a cheeseburger.”

Maggs smiled. “And I’m still drivin’.”

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

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