There are so many people around the courthouse you’d think they were holding a free Taylor Swift concert. The cab has to drop us off six blocks away when the traffic gets too snarled to go any farther. I let Dylan pay the driver since his allowance is about a thousand times what I get from Daddy.
It wasn’t all that warm at school, but in the middle of the city with all these tall buildings, tens of thousands of people, and a bunch of idling cars, I start to sweat about thirty seconds after getting out of the car. Dylan takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow and then sticks the handkerchief into his back pocket. I doubt he notices the nasty look I give him. Not that I’d want his sweat rag, but he could have at least offered it. I have to take a tissue from my backpack to dab at my forehead.
“We shouldn’t be here,” Dylan whines. “We’re going to get into trouble.”
“Why? They’re always saying we need to learn about current events. This is as current as it gets.”
“Dylan,” I say, mocking his motherly tone. “I just want to see them take her in. Then we can go back. Unless you want to maybe go somewhere else.”
I rub up against him like a cat would. He gives me a clueless look like he usually does when it comes to anything romantic. “You mean like the library?”
“No, I don’t mean the library.” I sigh and then shake my head. “Whatever. Just try to keep up, will you?”
We meet the outer ring of people a block away. They’re the latecomers like us. I doubt most of them even know what’s going on; they just heard there were a lot of TV cameras and want to check it out. This being Redoubt City there are also the enterprising homeless guys and scammers out to make a few bucks from the gathered masses. I have to pull Dylan away from listening to one homeless guy’s spiel.
“Come on,” I tell him. Sometimes Dylan seems so sheltered that he’s like a little kid. I give him a firm push to get him moving towards the crowd.
“This isn’t a good idea,” he says.
“Stop being a baby. It’ll be fine.”
Being short and skinny comes in handy right now to slip through the crowd. The only problem is my backpack occasionally bumping into someone. When I get a little breathing space, I shrug the backpack off to hold in front of me as kind of a battering ram. “Excuse me,” I keep saying as I navigate the crowd.
I’m not sure at what point I lose Dylan; it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s still at the rear of the crowd. A rich kid like him doesn’t do well in a mass of commoners. I’ve been to enough sporting events with Daddy and Jessica to know you have to be proactive in these situations. I bump aside a guy in a suit to finally get near enough that I can see the TV trucks.
Most kids would be content to take a selfie and maybe wave in the background of a TV camera shot. I couldn’t care less about getting on the news. I’d actually prefer not to in case any teachers or school administrators might be watching. That’s a sure way to get suspended from school and grounded at home.
There’s a ring of cops between the crowd and the news trucks. I walk along the perimeter to see if any of the guys I know are here. It’s hard to tell since most of them are wearing riot gear, though nobody seems close to rioting; they’re just gawking like at a traffic accident. I’m sure Daddy has warned everyone to be extra careful about igniting a brawl, but then all it takes is one idiot to throw a rock or shout something dirty and all hell can break loose. Maybe Dylan’s right that we shouldn’t be here.
I see a couple of cops paying more attention to one of the news bimbos than the crowd and decide to try to sneak past them. That would be a lot easier if I weren’t carrying a pink backpack and wearing a red T-shirt. I really should have put a little more thought this morning into how I could get close to the courthouse, but then I didn’t expect it to be this busy.
One of the cops grabs my backpack to almost swing me down to the ground. “Hey, kid, shouldn’t you be in school?” the guy asks.
“I’m covering the trial for my high school paper—The Wildcat Gazette.” I’m not actually on the school paper staff, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“Too bad. You’ll just have to watch from back there like everyone else.”
I huff and then go to my trump card. “My name is Robin Howe. As in Captain Jake Howe. You know him?”
“Sure, I know him. And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want his daughter in a restricted area. You better run on back to school before he finds out.”
“I want to watch her brought in. I’m not going to get into any trouble. Please?” I give him the same puppy dog eyes and pouting lip I give Daddy or Jessica when I need them to drive me somewhere.
They usually can’t resist that, but this guy can; just my luck to get the cop with a heart of stone. “Get back before I have to let your father know.”
I’m about to turn away when a familiar voice saves the day. “It’s all right, Officer, she’s with me.”
Lieutenant Carol Finnegan puts a hand on my shoulder to lead me away from the cop. She would usually have a cigarette in her mouth since we’re outside, but with all these cameras around, I’m sure she doesn’t want to seem too casual. As if I’m still seven years old, she says, “What do you think you’re doing here, young lady?”
“I wanted to see it for myself.”
“You could have seen it fine from the TV.”
“That wouldn’t be the same.”
She marches me quickly past all the TV cameras; I make sure to keep my head turned to make it hard for anyone to recognize me. “Your dad would lock you up and throw away the key if he knew you were here.”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“Not unless you give me a reason to.” She guides me past a bunch of print reporters and then into another line of cops. These ones are dressed in bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles to protect the approach to the courthouse.
“They aren’t playing around, are they?”
“No. Your father isn’t taking any chances today. Neither am I.” She opens the passenger’s side door of her unmarked car to shove me roughly inside. Carol looms in the doorway to glare down at me. “Don’t you even think about getting out of this car until I come back. You got that?”
“I got it.” I clutch my backpack to my chest and sigh. It’s only then I think of Dylan again. Maybe I should ask Carol to send someone to find him. I decide he’s better off wherever he is right now.
When I feel the car shake, I look around for the source of the noise. We don’t get many earthquakes on the Eastern seaboard, so whatever is making the ground shake has to be manmade. I finally find the source in the rearview mirror: a dark blue armored car the SWAT team uses to storm buildings. I smile a little to myself; Daddy is definitely not playing around today.
I’m sure there will be some pundit whining about the extravagance of all of this protection for an alleged (ha ha) crime boss. Daddy could point out to that person the last two people who informed on Madame Crimson wound up in small pieces in the harbor. There’s no reason to think this time would be any different.
If Daddy’s inside the armored car I doubt he can see me, but I hunker down anyway to make sure. There are regular cruisers in front of and behind the armored car, followed by a couple of black SUVs. The cops around the street stand a little taller and clutch their guns a little tighter as the armored car goes by. If someone’s going to try anything, now will be the time to do it.
The armored car stops at the front steps of the courthouse. The back doors open to let out an officer in a bulletproof vest and helmet. He gets out and holds up a hand to help someone down. My heart beats faster at the thought of Daddy popping out of that truck. My heart beats even faster when I see a middle-aged woman with a bulletproof vest over a bright red dress.
Madame Crimson, aka Lydia Schmidt, the crime lord of the city. She took power around the time I was born when her husband accidentally (ha ha) slipped in the bathroom and cracked his head open. Anyone who has opposed her has similarly died from an “accident” or decided to take a very long vacation with no forwarding address.
For almost as long as I’ve been alive my father has been trying to bring down her empire. His study at home has a whole wall dedicated to notes on her organization and all its misdeeds. Mom freaked out when I wandered in there when I was four years old; she found me staring at the crime scene photos of a couple of goons who had died in a car “accident.” After that Mom made sure he locked the door, but once I got older I found ways to sneak in to see the latest additions.
A couple of cops help Madame Crimson down to the courthouse steps while the TV cameras roll and photographers snap pictures like it’s the red carpet of the Oscars. I brace myself for someone to take a shot at her, a sniper in one of the nearby buildings. I’m sure Daddy isn’t so stupid as to leave any obvious sniper posts, but you can never be too sure.
Madame Crimson walks up the front steps as if there aren’t a hundred cameras watching her. A couple of guys in suits meet her at the top of the steps; they’re probably her lawyers. She has hired the most expensive defense attorneys in the entire country to try to get her off, but it’s not going to happen this time. Not after all the careful planning Daddy has put into this.
I keep waiting for him to pop out of the armored car. Then I see the doors of a black SUV open and there he is. He’s wearing a bulletproof vest, though not a helmet. He probably would be wearing one if he knew I was here; since we’re not supposed to be here, does he think he can be careless with his own safety? Jessica and I will have to give him a talking-to about it tonight.
Daddy yanks another guy out of the car. This guy is about as short and skinny as I am with the frightened look of a puppy coming home for the first time. From Daddy’s study wall I know this guy is Louis Heine, the accountant who’s going to testify against Madame Crimson. The plan is if nothing else they can at least get her on tax evasion like Al Capone.
Heine is wearing a bulletproof vest; Daddy drops a helmet on the guy’s head to help keep him safe from any would-be snipers. He has to drag Heine along the sidewalk, a couple of SWAT guys with them for support. I hunker down in my seat again, not wanting Daddy to notice me in Carol’s car.
In the rearview mirror I notice another cop get out of the SUV. He glances around and then starts to walk quickly to catch up to Daddy and Heine. The guy is wearing an ordinary hat so I can see the sweat pouring down his face. He looks almost as scared as Heine and yet he’s still trying to catch up to them. As he gets a little closer, I see him reach into his pocket for something. There’s a bulge in his shirt that could be a bulletproof vest, but putting all the pieces together, I know that’s not it.
“Daddy, look out!” I scream. My fingers fumble with the lock to get the door open.
I’m just about to open the door when there’s the sound of a gunshot. The cop behind Daddy is hit in the left thigh, but he doesn’t go down. Daddy spins around to see what’s going on. He shoves Heine down with one hand while the other reaches for his gun.
But it’s too late. The cop—or guy in a police uniform—triggers the detonator in his hand. There’s a flash and then an explosion rips outward from the bomb underneath the guy’s shirt. A shockwave makes the car rattle again.
“Daddy!” I scream. I can’t see him with the smoke from the bomb. I throw open my door and stagger out of the car.
Before I can run to where he had been, Carol yanks me back. “Stay in the car!” she shouts.
“Stay in the car, Robin!” Carol shoves me back towards the car and then runs towards the scene with her gun drawn.
There’s a lot of screaming and shouting not only from the blast site, but also around the courthouse as the crowd stampedes. I hope Dylan manages to get out of here safely, but there are too many people around to go after him. I collapse on the passenger’s seat of the car and sob.
Through my tears I see Madame Crimson standing on the top of the courthouse steps with her lawyers. One of the lawyers is trying to pull her inside, but she’s not moving. She’s watching, probably to make sure Heine is dead, as is the case against her.
All Daddy’s planning and preparations and precautions and she’s still going to get away with it.
I squeal with surprise when Carol drops onto the driver’s seat. “Daddy?”
“I’m not going to lie, kid. He’s hurt—bad. They’re going to take him to St. Joe’s. Call Jessica and have her meet us there.”
“All right,” I mumble. I fumble around in my backpack to find my phone. I squeal with surprise again when it comes to life in my hand, displaying Jessica’s number. “Jessie?”
“Robin, have you heard—”
“I’m here. I’m at the courthouse,” I say.
“What? What the hell are you doing—?”
“Daddy’s hurt. Bad,” I sob into the phone. “Aunt Carol is taking me to St. Joe’s. She says they’re going to take Daddy there.”
I envy the calm in Jessica’s voice as she says, “All right. I’ll be there as soon as I can. You stay close to Aunt Carol, OK? She’ll take care of you.”
“I know.” The phone goes dead in my hand. Carol already has us moving, the light on her dashboard flashing red.
I look back at the courthouse, but Madame Crimson has finally gone inside. Her work is done.