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She had to marvel at her neighbor’s will. The passage she was playing seemed demonically hard. Nora had learned it by heart, because the violinist had played this particular passage no less than fifty times in the last hour. It was indeed becoming smoother. The times when the violinist stopped midway through and began again at the beginning had become fewer. Nora knew now what it sounded like when she got it right.
But Nora was starting to lose her mind. She had just rolled over and cast a resigned glance at her clock, which absurdly read one-thirty in the morning, when she heard the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. It sounded to Nora like it had been the broad, heavy pane that filled her oaken front door.
She was out of bed in an instant. She plunged her feet into her sneakers and, head tilted, listening intently, she crossed to where her gun holster dangled from one of the four posters of the bedframe. Her neighbor had heard the sound as well, it seemed, because the music stopped midstream.
Nora didn’t even have a chance to assess if there was an intruder in her own apartment. She suddenly heard heavy footsteps pounding across the floor above and a scream that stopped Nora cold. She dashed back to the bedside table and pounded the numbers 9-1-1 into her BlackBerry, even as she raced, phone in one hand and gun in the other, to her front door and out to the porch she shared with the violinist.
The intruder had smashed the glass front door which was the twin of hers, then unlocked it from the inside. It stood ominously open now, the heavy glass littering the porch in large shards. Just as she was about to enter, Nora’s BlackBerry finally responded, “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
From within, Nora heard another gut-wrenching scream. “Intruder, possibly armed, attacking a woman—100 French Street, second floor, hurry!”
Then she was in. As she mounted the stairs, she was met by the sound of a heavy lamp crashing against a wall and a bulb shattering, and a voice roaring out the word bitch over and over. Now she galloped up the stairs two-by-two, leaping into the room, gun drawn. The living room was empty; she continued to what had to be the bedroom.
The door had the same crystal doorknobs as her own bedroom one floor below; it was not fully closed. Through the gap, she could see figures, and the sound of her neighbor whimpering in pain. With a quick kick, Nora burst in.
The man was bigger than she’d expected, with wide, rippling arms spilling out of a gray muscle shirt. Tattoos rampaged across biceps, forearms, and neck. Sandy hair framed a wide face with chiseled features. His expression was already one of fury, but when he spied Nora’s gun pointing at him, it turned to white-hot rage. Squirming beneath him, pinned to the floor, was the violinist. The blood dripping down her cheek and from her already-swollen bottom lip made a jarring contrast against her pale skin. Nora was surprised his position alone hadn’t crushed her.
“Get off of her and put your hands on the floor, slowly,” Nora said, mustering her angriest, most commanding voice. She begged God for a squad car with extra loud sirens, but nothing came.
“Fuck you,” answered the man, his chest heaving, his tone scathing.
He didn’t move. Nora scanned his clothing for a weapon and saw a bulge in his pocket that looked more pocketknife than gun. Still, she did not want to gamble.
“I’m Special Agent Nora Khalil of the FBI. If you refuse my direct order to stop this attack and surrender yourself, I will shoot you. Is this clear?”
She watched the man assessing her, weighing his options. She watched him assess incorrectly. He lunged at her, and she shot him twice, point-blank in the chest, as she deftly side-stepped his barreling mass.
The weight of his dying body splintered the door against which he fell. As the echoes of Nora’s shots faded, the violinist’s soft sobs became audible. The jockeying of nearing sirens struck a dissonant chorus.
* * *
It wasn’t how Nora had intended to meet her neighbor, but it was certainly effective.
Nora looked from the corpse to the woman, whose eyes were not on the massive dead man but instead riveted on her violin. It had evidently been tossed on the bed where it lay now, facedown, the bow pinned beneath it. Nora, reading her mind, walked over to the instrument, picked it up carefully, and showed it to her.
“Not a scratch,” she said, before replacing it on its back on the bright quilt. Then Nora walked over and crouched next to her neighbor. “Are you okay?”
The woman nodded, sitting up, feeling her limbs gingerly for breaks.
“Just a little bruised, I think.”
Nora tilted her head, observing her. “A lot bruised. Should I assume that guy’s a neighbor who couldn’t take the midnight practicing thing?”
The violinist raised her eyebrows and then burst out laughing. “My ex-husband,” she answered finally. “And yes, it always made him crazy, too.” She stuck out a slim hand. “I’m Rachel.”
Nora took it, noting the graceful, tapered fingers. “Nora,” she said.
“You saved my life, Nora,” Rachel said. “He intended to kill me this time.”
Nora digested the words, “this time,” and regarded her curiously. “Yeah, I got that impression, too. I’m glad you’re okay.…” She couldn’t help adding, “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to talk about suitable practice hours.”
Three police officers rushed in at that point, guns drawn, and Nora and Rachel spent the next ninety minutes answering questions. The ex-husband had come for Rachel from Buffalo where she had met, married, and divorced him. His continual physical abuse had earned him a restraining order that Rachel thought she could bolster by moving away. She had taken a job with the Erie Philharmonic in order to make a new start.
But the ex had not been ready to let go.
One of the officers was attempting to call an ambulance, but Rachel insisted that she would walk to the emergency room which was, after all, only two blocks away. Nora recognized this as a move typical of those who don’t have health insurance. When she further realized that Rachel wasn’t going to call any friends or family to accompany her, she refused to let her go alone.
They walked slowly down French Street to the hospital, striking up a refrain. Rachel kept stressing that Nora should go home and sleep, seeing as she had to be at work the next day. Nora kept responding that she was trying to get Rachel in her debt so completely that she wouldn’t dare play the violin at midnight ever again.
* * *
“What was a concert violinist doing with some burly biker guy?” Anna was asking, a frown creasing her features.
“I asked her the exact same thing,” Nora said, swiveling in her desk chair. “She told me she had married him to piss off her parents.”
“Ohhhh,” said Anna. “Yeah, I get that.”
“Get what?” asked Pete as he walked in, clutching his Starbucks cup and reeking of cologne.
Anna supplied, “Female self-destruction as rebellion against parents.”
Pete narrowed his eyes, trying to get his bearings in the conversation, then decided they were joking. “You’re talking about Miss Nora’s crazed nightlife?”
Anna grinned. “Actually, that’s just the right description. But I guess you didn’t hear? She shot a brute last night.”
Pete gaped. “I wanna shoot brutes,” he said crankily. “Why do you get to shoot brutes?”
Nora related the story, returning finally to the point about how the delicate violinist ended up with the tattooed attacker. “Apparently he was very appealing when he was sixty pounds lighter and fighting fires for a living. Then he started hitting her. When she left him, he just drank and rode his motorcycle.”
“And he got drunk and rode his motorcycle to Erie to reclaim her?” Pete asked.
“To reclaim his manhood,” Anna theorized.
Nora tapped her pen against the desk as she completed the paperwork. It was the second time she had killed someone, and she was trying to decide how she felt about it. She concluded that tea would clarify things, and she stood up to head for the kitchenette down the hall. “You guys want coffee or anything?” she asked.
As she scooped dried mint leaves into her mug from her secret stash behind the Keurig, she heard the SSRA behind her. “Well, Agent Khalil?”
Usually Sheila said “hello Nora,” and hearing the “Khalil” this morning confirmed to Nora that she had been consciously avoiding trying to pronouncing her last name. “Hi, Sheila.”
Sheila held a tall stack of files. “Child porn purveyors not enough for you, huh? Gotta go shooting wife-beaters. What’s next?”
Nora shrugged, not sure how to answer, and added hot water to the loose mint and the waiting tea bag.
Sheila regarded her, her features easing into a look of real concern. “You okay?”
Nora dangled the teabag in the mug, watching the water darken, then looked at her boss. “I think so. Little sleepy, maybe.”
“How do you feel about how things went down with this intruder thing?”
Nora thought about it. “I’ve been trying to sort out if there was any other way, but I don’t see how there were any options.”
Sheila nodded. “I get that. And I’ll read your report carefully before sending it on to the police. I still prefer that you don’t walk solo into such situations.”
“I called the police first,” Nora said. “They took forever to come, by the way.”
“It was actually only six minutes. I checked. Look, Nora, you acted correctly and with bravery. I’m proud of you,” Sheila said. “I also want to keep you, so be careful. I imagine you weren’t wearing a vest.”
Nora shrugged again. “I was wearing pajamas.”
Sheila shook her head and walked back to her office, flicking through the stack of files.
By now, Nora desperately needed her tea. The warmth of the mug radiated through her familiarly, restoring her a little. Not sleeping was a wrinkle she hadn’t foreseen in her strategy to excel in her new position. Appearing at work exhausted at seven thirty in the morning was not going to lead to stellar performance.
Nora blew across the rim of the mug, then sipped tentatively. Slowly, she walked to the cubicle and glanced at the papers on her desk, not eager to go back to scanning through the endless rosters of lost girls. It was like looking for a perverse lottery ticket. Nearly each of Frank Burgess’s waking hours was spent in trolling the Internet. Nora felt her skin crawl as she imagined him, utterly sedentary, locked in his trailer, feasting his pale eyes on the flesh of little children. She hated him. She hated him so much.
She had just settled into her task when a text from Ben flashed across the screen of her BlackBerry. On my way to NYC. Do you need anything?
She texted back, Six or seven I HEART NY t-shirts.
Then she frowned at the screen, adding, Why are you going to NYC?
There was enough of a delay that she had turned back to her computer screen when the words Long story came through.
She sighed, then pushed the BlackBerry away. She didn’t like long stories. She tried to go through her files again, but found herself staring at the BlackBerry. She did not want to pick it up, but was finally unable to resist. What’s the long story?
Sarah is getting out of rehab and needs someone to be there for a couple days.
Nora shoved back her chair and stood up, then sat down again. Then she stood up again, glaring at the screen and its message. Her breath came only choppily, and she found herself looking around the office as though expecting someone to materialize she could show the message to. She almost walked over to Maggie. But she imagined herself showing Maggie the screen and demanding she share her outrage, then imagined Maggie growling at her to get out of her cubicle. She almost texted Rachel, but knew both that it was too soon in their friendship to start being needy … and that Rachel was surely still sleeping after the late night at the hospital.
Dammit, she whispered to herself. He doesn’t have time to come here. How can he go up there? To her?
At least he’s telling you straight up. You would never have known, she pointed out, playing in turn the role of both of the girlfriends she didn’t have at a time like this.
She was holding the phone in her hands feeling utterly mystified when Anna said, “Yes!”
Nora looked a question at her.
Anna said, “I just got word that the warrant was coming through this morning for Burgess’s arrest and confiscation of his computer.”
Nora set her phone facedown on her desk and then sat up quite straight in her chair, willing herself to focus fully. “That’s incredibly fast for a warrant to come through,” she said. In Philly it would have taken longer, unless strings had been pulled or favors called in. There was just so much more to do to pin down a judge.
Pete actually grinned at her. “Yeah it’s fast. Which means it’s not just another mind-numbing day at the office!”
Anna shook her head, then smiled at Nora. “We’re going to McKean! Lucky you.”
“Oh my God,” Nora said, her heartrate zooming.
“Did you wear your fabled running shoes?” Anna was asking, sliding into her desk chair and pulling her laptop out of her slick leather briefcase.
“Will I need them?” she countered.
“Hell no,” Pete said. “Did you see that fat slob? He couldn’t run to the bathroom.”
* * *
As it turned out, her running shoes were the last things she needed.
The morning was filled with almost interminable waiting. The twenty-minute ride to McKean in Anna’s SUV was the swiftest part of it—Nora still marveled at the near total lack of traffic to contend with. Both Pete and Anna tended to take advantage of this by driving extremely fast even when it was completely unnecessary to do so.
It was the state troopers who came late, though.
They discovered this as they were pulling into the small town, nestled innocuously amid vast stretches of green as far as the eye could see.
“Really?” Nora asked Pete, who was engrossed in his BlackBerry looking at his Instagram account.
He looked up. “Really what?”
“That’s it? That’s all there is?”
“Girl, what did you expect? People turn to porn out here out of boredom, not malice.”
It was over an hour before the state police finally appeared. McKean, like most of the towns in the area around Erie, had no police force. Three state troopers—one of whom Nora watched spit tobacco mid-sentence—and their sergeant would provide support for the arrest. Anna, who did not flinch during the spitting incident, was speaking to them calmly.
Conversation. Speaking into handheld radios. More conversation. More speaking into handheld radios.
The three state police cars had gathered near Anna’s SUV in the parking lot of the local Sheetz.
Nora was refusing to answer Ben’s string of Why aren’t you responding? texts. Instead, she watched the cluster of law enforcement officers that had formed about Anna, almost obscuring her. Occasionally Nora caught glimpses of Anna’s unnaturally red hair, which shone like a squat beacon from between the uniformed figures.
“Those are some amazing hats, I have to say.”
The wide-brimmed gray wool hats bore shiny black bands and sat tall on the troopers’ heads. Just below each hat’s peak were two deep, matching indentations that made the hats look like faces with sucked-in cheeks.
Pete looked up. “Yep.” He looked back down at the screen.
“I think we need hats. I would like a hat like that,” she said.
“Like that?” Pete said, contemplatively. “Well, it’s a pretty awesome hat. But I think I’d look better in a fedora.”
She turned to regard him, then nodded lazily, her boredom weighing heavily on her. She said slowly, “Maybe. Theirs may be slightly much, now that I think about it.”
Finally, Anna beckoned to them. She and Pete descended from the SUV with relief; Nora had thought Pete was going to kick a hole in the back of her seat.
Anna, reading glasses on, was holding a file with a computer-generated map of the area and the relevant warrants. She introduced Pete and Nora to the sergeant, who informed them that he went by the name of Buck. The way that he said this seemed intended to convey a rural mixture of power and friendliness, but for Nora it only served to undermine whatever assurances she’d been drawing from the hat.
All were peering at the route they would take to the trailer park where Frank Burgess lived.
Anna said, “He has a vehicle registered in his name, but it’s an ’84 Ford Bronco. I cannot imagine that it would provide a fast getaway. Either way, you should block it in when we pull up.”
The men were nodding.
“If you can make us a perimeter, we can enter and make the arrest.”
Buck said, “There’s no evidence of anyone else in the trailer?”
Anna shook her head. “No. Just Burgess.”
They agreed to lead the way without sirens or lights, and the three agents returned to the SUV. After Anna slid the key into the ignition, she turned to Pete. “Pull those vests out of the back, kiddo.”
“Don’t call me kiddo. And why?”
“Because we’re in God’s country, boy. Thar be guns.”
Reluctantly, Pete passed out Kevlar and then put on his own.
“Your vests are different than what I’m used to.…” Nora observed, fighting with hers.
Anna nodded. “Israeli Kevlar,” she said. “People here have more rifles than handguns. You need more advanced stuff. With the right shirt you can conceal it, though.”
Nora placed a hand against the hard material, already sitting up straighter in her chair because she had no choice. She was trying to determine if any of her work shirts could be worn over the vest. She had one that was baggy enough, she thought. Still, though. Wouldn’t look too fly.
Glancing at Pete in the rearview mirror, Anna said, “Don’t feel so emasculated. Do it for the Starbucks wench.”
With that, she shifted into gear and tore off behind the state police. Although technically newer, Nora was slightly older than Pete and had a fuller resume. She appreciated his frustration at being patronized by the seasoned older agent. It was a dynamic she’d had quite enough of back in Philadelphia.
Frank Burgess’s trailer was sandwiched in among a dozen or so others. The park was a mere five minutes from the center of McKean. All the trailers seemed to Nora to be carbon copies, give or take some variations in trim or the occasional awning. She took note of the Ford Bronco, however, and her blood began to race. It had been almost a year since she had been part of a bust. In that year she had trained hard, in both martial arts and firearms, but it was still different from being out in the field.
Anna closed the driver’s side door quietly and motioned for them to do the same. “Okay,” she said, looking them hard in the eyes. “As we discussed.”
What they had discussed was that Pete would go to the back of the trailer and peer in through one of its grubby windows as Anna and Nora approached from the front with their identification and stated intention to arrest.
This they did. Anna checked to see that the troopers and Sergeant Buck were in place before she rapped on the rusted outer door.
“FBI,” she called out. “Frank Burgess, we have a warrant for your arrest.”
Exactly four seconds elapsed before Pete called, “He’s going for the gun cabinet!” This was followed by a crash as he kicked in the window. Nora and Anna leaned in hard against the locked inner door, then Nora stepped back as Anna took aim and fired her Glock at the doorknob, shattering it. The flimsy door swung open revealing Pete’s flying lunge against Frank Burgess. The obese man teetered, stumbled, then fell against the very gun cabinet he had been trying to pull open.
The state police poured in after Nora and Anna, guns at the ready, but Anna was already securing Burgess’s fleshy wrists with her handcuffs as she read him his rights. He was groaning in a loud combination of anger and pain. The open gun cabinet revealed at least a dozen rifles; a few of the weapons had tumbled onto the floor and Peter was careful to roll the man away from them before helping him to his feet.
Each of the agents, panting, regarded the other, confirming with gazes that they were all okay. Anna’s look expanded to take in their backup. “You all alright?” she asked briskly.
All three nodded.
“Alright then,” she said with a smile. “Not a bad summer outing.”
Copyright © 2017 by Carolyn Baugh