“Mama! Mama! Look what I found!” Michele Johnson turned at the sound of her eldest daughter’s seven-year-old voice. Two-year-old Jay had worn out earlier and was sleeping in the back of the double stroller, and Crystl’s five-year-old sister, Theresa, was off somewhere with her father. Michele loved all three of her children, but Crystl was indeed the light of her life. The child looked exactly like her mother, from the hair of sunshine gold to the unusual violet eyes. Now, she knelt down next to the child to look in a toy store window’s display.
“Is that more furniture for your dollhouse I see, Precious?” she asked.
“Yes, Mama. Look, there’s a wardrobe, a dresser, a bed, and a chest of drawers. All in cherry wood. Wouldn’t it look marvelous in the Green Room?” Crystl’s two-story dollhouse was fully twice the child’s size, and if Crystl had put her chin on the floor, she could have seen from temple to temple in the dresser mirror with room to spare. There was a clock embedded in the dresser, about the size of a watch, that really kept time.
“Well, wouldn’t it look better in the Rose Room?” Michele said doubtfully.
“Oh, no, Mother,” Crystl countered. “The rosewood furniture belongs in the Rose Room, and Tiffany would be so upset if I moved all her furniture about.”
Michele was quite well acquainted with her daughter’s dollhouse world, often called upon to act out parts of it herself. “You know, if you finish that patchwork quilt you’re making, I bet it would look beautiful on the bed,” Michele returned, entering the store. Crystl’s shining eyes were truly a joy to behold. Michele brushed away her tears. She and Sam had only been married for six-and-a-half years, and she had begun home schooling her children for Crystl’s sake, and the child still had not worked out in her head that she had been born out of wedlock. It had been a dark night seven years ago when Michele had been raped by her boyfriend, who had lost control of himself in the heat of the moment. Michele loved Sam desperately, but when she had discovered that she was carrying his baby, they had arranged a hasty marriage, getting married only three months after Crystl had been born. Poor, innocent Michele had not even considered she could be pregnant until she felt the baby moving in her. Even so, seven years later, Sam and Michele were still madly in love. Michele looked down at her daughter, holding the bag with the furniture in it like a precious treasure. She feared for her children. If something should ever happen to her, what would Sam do with her children? Samuel Dominic Johnson wasn’t a bad family man. His business was the kind only whispered about in dark stairwells and he was the terror of two continents, but he loved his wife, and treated his eldest child and his baby boy well, if in a rather disinterested fashion, in an effort to please his pretty wife. Theresa helped him with his business as much as a child could. Without Michele, however, Sam was a rough man, brutal, and uncivilized. Michele feared that with her death would come the end of the children’s happiness and safety, and in a fit of rage, Sam wouldn’t hesitate to take a child’s life. Michele paused and, as she had begun to do with alarming frequency, prayed protection for her beloveds.
“Hey, Matt, we got a 10-30 gun run. You up?” Matt’s partner, a seasoned veteran, Curt Justice, called from inside the car.
Officer Matt McClan swung into the car. “A robbery with a weapon? I’m game. Where?”
“Home of Jackie Van Linden.”
“The millionaire? You’d think that woman would have better security.”
“Maybe that’s why our perp is using a weapon. With any luck, he won’t actually use it, and we won’t be looking at a hostage situation when we get there.”
“That’s the prayer.” They pulled up in front of the house. Matt surveyed it. “All quiet.”
Matt nodded his agreement. “You want the perp or the victim?”
“You’re better with the ladies.”
Matt grinned at his partner. “Yeah, I guess so. What if the perp is a lady?”
“Ladies do not go uninvited into other ladies’ homes wielding weapons.”
Matt conceded that with a shrug. “Go in, face first, guns blazing and getting ourselves shot in the head?” His eyes twinkled with his joke.
His partner snorted. “Rookie.” They set up on both sides of the door, and Matt’s eyes and gun were up the minute his partner kicked in the door. The entryway was clear, and they moved cautiously into the house, covering for each other. The downstairs was clear, and they moved upstairs when their backup, four more cops, entered to hold down the fort. A door was partly open and they moved silently toward it. A man dressed in black was standing with his back to them, emptying a lady’s jewelry box into a cloth bag. “Freeze, scum!” Curt commanded, leveling his gun at the figure.
Matt noticed middle-aged, slender, delicate, stereotypical-grandma-type Jackie sitting on the bed, her eyes streaming tears. As Curt kept the perp covered, Matt holstered his gun and moved to the lady, tugging out his handkerchief and handing it to her. “It’s okay now, Mrs. Van Linden. We’re the good guys, and we’re here to take care of everything now. You’re all right.”
“Thank you, young man,” her voice whispered out, scaled up an entire octave because of her tears. “Most of that jewelry my husband gave me. Every piece is absolutely priceless with sentimental value, but it’s not really worth all that much monetarily.”
“I don’t think our guy knows the difference between real and imitation. I’d like to take you downstairs, ma’am, and get your statement and a list of everything that was in that box. And I think you could use a cup of hot tea.”
“Thank you, young man,” Jackie repeated, her voice a little steadier and stronger.
“Matt! Get down!” Curt called, just as a burst of gunfire filled the room.
Matt responded to his partner’s frantic call, tackling Mrs. Van Linden to the floor and tugging her behind the bed, out of harm’s way. “Stay down, ma’am!” He looked around the room and saw his partner, bleeding from the arm, having taken refuge behind a wardrobe, tightly cornered. “Justice!”
“Eyes toward the danger, rookie!” Curt’s warning came too late as a bullet grazed the side of Matt’s head in a blaze of liquid fire. Half-blind from pain, Matt’s aim never wavered, and the sharpshooter status he’d gained at the academy served him well as he shot the gun out of the perp’s hand.
Curt stepped up and forced the man to the floor, the backup arriving in time to cuff him and take him out. Two others took over Mrs. Van Linden, who was babbling about the young man who protected her life with his own with an instinct as easy as breathing, and Matt, still on his knees, swayed, a fist going to the floor to steady himself. Curt went to his partner. “You aren’t supposed to get shot in the head, Matt. I thought we established that. You okay, partner?”
Matt looked up and swiped the blood away, feeling the tear, already cauterized by the blazing bullet. It wasn’t very long, or very deep. “Just wasn’t prepared for the hot pain. I knew it would hurt; I didn’t know it would burn.” He looked at his bloodstained hand a minute, then scowled. “Leigh’s gonna roast me.”
“Learn something every day. Come on, hero, the news cameras want a shot of your face.”
“Let’s see how pictures of my back serve them. I shot a bullet, you shot a couple; we’re going to be filling out paperwork for the foreseeable future.”
“Yeah. But think about it, man, you get to go home tonight to a proud wife and two adorable kids.”
Matt’s perspective brightened up considerably at this. “That’s right. Leigh was making meatloaf tonight, and I’ve got a new baby girl that loves her daddy and a handsome son whose greatest hero is his dad, the cop.” Matt put an arm around Curt’s shoulders. “Come on, old man. Let’s get going.”