THE ATONEMENT CHILD.

CHAPTER 9.

Purdy Whitehall received the call at Middleton Police Department at 10:37 Wednesday evening, January 8. It had been a quiet evening with only one complaint, about a party disturbing the peace. Sergeant Don Ferguson had reported a few minutes earlier that it was nothing more than a bunch of baby boomers feeling nostalgic and singing to Elvis records.

This call was altogether different.

“Someone’s screaming in the park,” a woman. “Come quick, please! Someone’s screaming!”

The caller’s telephone number came up on Purdy’s computer screen along with the address. Henderson Avenue. Speaking with a trained calmness, she assured the woman help would be coming and put her on hold in order to dispatch a squad car and the location.

Frank Lawson was just pulling up to Ernie’s Diner on Sixteenth for a badly needed coffee break when his radio crackled with the message. Muttering under his breath, he rapped the radio sharply and picked up the speaker. Depressing the button, he identified himself and his car number. “My radio’s having PMS again, Purdy. Repeat the message.”

“There’s a disturbance at the park on Henderson Avenue, Frank. How close are you?”

“Ten blocks. I’m on my way.” Putting the speaker back, he swung the squad car in a sharp U-turn and hit his flashing red lights. Few cars were on the road at this time of night, so he didn’t use his siren. No use waking people up if it wasn’t necessary.

As he barreled down Sixteenth, he saw a white station wagon heading west. The red taillights glowed as the car pulled to the side of the road in obedience to the law. Frank never passed it. He made a sharp left onto Henderson Avenue.

Coming to a smooth stop by the park, he grabbed his heavy flashlight, made a quick call to Purdy, and got out. He surveyed the park as he came around his squad car. His heart quickened, the hair on the back of his neck prickling.

Something was wrong. He was sure of it.

Adrenaline pumping, Frank glaced around and saw lights on in three houses near the park. A woman came out to stand on the front porch of one.

“Over there!” She came down the front steps in her bath robe. “Over there near the activity center! Please hurry. Someone’s been hurt.”

“Go on back in your house, ma’am. We’ll take care of it.” Another squad car pulled up, and Frank saw Greg Townsend get out.

The woman fled up her steps and banged the screen door behind her, but she remained silhouetted in the doorway watching, her arms hugged around herself toward off the cold.

Greg reached Frank. “See anything?”

“No, but it does feel right. Take the path over there, and I’ll come in from the side.”

“Gotcha.”

Frank knew every inch of this park like it was his own backyard. He brought his three small children here to play every Saturday afternoon so his wife could have a few hours respite.

There was enough light from the park lamps that his left hand anyway, his right over his gun. He saw evidence of a struggle in the snow bear the sidewalk that ran the length of Henderson to the NLC campus. A little further in, he found the backpack. Just beyond it was a torn parka. He walked along the edge of the pathway cautiously, eyes sweeping, ears trainer for any sound out of the ordinary.

As he neared the activity center, he heard a rustling sound in the bushes nearby. Something was scrambling frantically away, like an animal clambering for a hiding place.

Instinctively he removed the loop from his gun and pulled it free of his holster. “Police! Come out onto the walkway where we can see you.” He moved slightly, away from the light, so he wouldn’t make himself an easy target.

The rustling stopped, and he heard another sound, soft and broken. A woman sobbing.

Oh, God. Oh, God, no. Not here. Not where I bring my kids every week.

Holstering his gun, Frank went to the bushes and drew some branches back. Training his flashlight, he saw a girl huddled beneath the canopy of leaves. Flinching back, she covered her face with her arms. He blonde hair was tangled and damp from the snow. Frank noticed the ripped waitress uniform, the bleeding scratches on her shoulder, the flesh bloodstains on her skirt.

Anger filled him. “Easy,” he said gently. Lowering the light so it wasn’t straight on her, he hunkered down she cowered from him. “I’m Sergeant Lawson, miss. I’m here to help you.” He kept talking quietly, trying to give her a sense of safety.

She raised her head after a few minutes, her blue eyes wide and dilated. Her lower lip was split and bleeding, her right eye swollen from a blow. Drawing her knees up, she sat on the dirty snow and then, covering her head with her arms, she cried.

Compassion filled Frank, along with a sick rage. Whoever had done this should pay.

Greg approached from the other side of the park, his foot-steps crunching in the hard snow. The girl’s head came up again, eyes wide and frightened. He could see the pulse hammering in her throat.

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