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Priority One

by Gary Clifton

“Delta 126,” the young dispatcher’s voice was nearly lost in the static and heavy evening radio crosstalk.

“Delta 126,” Peterson said into the microphone.

“Welfare check, 208 West Colorado, priority one.”

“Show 126 responding.” Peterson hung up the mike. “Rook, that’s just off Central over by the river. Prolly dopers not paying the light bill. Priority one, kiddo. Means we can kick in the door.”

Polski nodded and made a U-turn.

Had the nosy neighbor not called it in, the circumstances might have been even worse. 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 that the occupants had been killed by a gas leak and that the whole neighborhood might blow up.

Peterson, portly and balding, had thirty years in patrol. He’d earned a reputation of being tough enough to eat silverware. Polski, his rookie partner, slender beneath black hair, had only been on the street four months. She still was required to ride with a training officer.

After no answer to knocks all around, Peterson was ready to kick in the front door when Polski found an unlocked side window. She climbed in and let Peterson in the front door. The interior smelled of rotten cabbage and filth.

Peterson led with flashlight in hand. They followed a slight noise down a hall. Polski drew her pistol. Peterson motioned her to put it away.

The little girl was perhaps eight years old. So frail and emaciated, she appeared translucent. She was sitting, wrapped in a ragged blanket, reading from a tattered book of prayers by candlelight. The old lady in the bed appeared to Peterson’s trained eye to have been dead for at least a week.

“She ain’t been able to talk,” the child said softly. “Can y’all help us to the clinic?”

Polski, personable and handy with kids, coaxed her out into the hall. She gave the child a freebie candy she’d saved from a pizza joint up on the main drag. The child devoured it.

Peterson used his handset to call for the Medical Examiner.

The ME’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 all right, Peterson. Maybe a week or so like you say. So skinny, she ain’t givin’ off that godawful stink they usually do. Nothin’ in her bowels to discharge at death. Sorta petrified.” He chopped off his horselaugh when he saw Peterson glaring at him in the dim light. Peterson was nobody to tick off.

The M.E. coughed. “I... uh, need to call the morgue wagon.”

Polski stepped in and caught Peterson’s eye. “What about the girl?”

“We finish here, we gotta transport her. 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 sounds like she has pneumonia. You two eagle-eyed coppers do see the problem here, I hope?” He gestured beneath the foot of the old lady’s bed where a fat puppy lay sleeping beside a plate piled with bread scraps.

“Ol’ lady got where she couldn’t do for herself. Kid fed the damned dog and starved granny to death. Kid ain’t far behind... stupid riffraff.” He morphed into his idiotic laugh again. “Or, hey, maybe the kid starved the old woman intentionally. Y’all could charge her with murder.”

Peterson spoke softly to the man, but the edge in his voice was sharp and ominous. “Grandma couldn’t eat, so the girl didn’t, either. Maybe you oughta wait outside.”

Peterson turned away, finding a reason to scribble hurriedly in his notebook. Polski was young and green. He supposed it was all right for her to shed tears, but the iron man wasn’t going to let anyone see his.

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

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