“Stop it, Daddy!”
“Shut up your mouth before I shut it for you,” the man hissed in the little girl’s ear. Holding her tightly by both arms, he shook her.
“Please,” the girl cried. “You’re hurting me.” Sobbing convulsively, the girl tried to wriggle free, but her father’s grasp was too tight.
“Cassie, come on.” The man tossed the girl over his left shoulder as easily as slinging a bag of cat food. He marched out of the department store, glaring straight ahead, oblivious to the stares of customers.
Tears poured down Cassie’s face and fell to the scuffed linoleum, leaving behind an easy-to-follow trail. Matted hair fell limply around the child’s head, and dirty ankles protruded from the frayed hems of her pant legs. With each step of her father’s, Cassie’s stained gray sweatshirt slid further and further up her chest, exposing stomach and ribs. The child was bone-thin.
As the angry man stopped past the registers, the sound of cell phones snapping open filled the air, mimicking the staccato beat of rain on a metal roof. Dozens of narrowed eyes tracked the progress of the father, appearing to memorize his physical characteristics with each step that he took.
“May I help you?” A blue-clad security guard interrupted the man’s determined march to the doors.
“Get out of the way,” he said as he brushed past the officer.
“I need you to stop. Now.”
Silently, the father pushed ahead, deaf to the guard’s demands. Step by step he neared the closed doors of the store, anger’s marks clearly defined on his unshaven face.
The guard fell into step behind the man. Cassie lifted her filthy head, and with red-rimmed eyes mouthed, “Help me.”
“Don’t take another step,” the guard said, “or I’ll have to shoot.”
“Go right ahead,” the man replied as he turned and stared at the barrel of a gun. “But if you hurt my daughter, I’ll kill you,” he called as the doors whooshed open. He stepped into the cool nighttime air, to the astonished gasp of terrified onlookers.
The guard spoke into a walkie-talkie on his shoulder and followed them into the darkness outside.
The store’s lot was poorly lit. Weak pools of pale yellow light separated patches of total darkness, creating an other-worldly effect. The guard quickly scanned right to left, but did not immediately spot the man. As he stepped further away from the store’s entrance, however, he saw movement near the garden center. With gun held tightly in both hands, he cautiously moved in that direction.
Suddenly a chorus of sirens filled the still air, slowly building in intensity, like an orchestra warming up. A mewling sound caught his attention, off to the right, near a dipsy-dumpster. Focused on his target, the guard stepped ever closer to the battered metal container, gun raised and pointing straight ahead.
“Take another step and I’ll kill the girl,” the man’s gravelly voice sounded from behind the dumpster, echoing off a nearby brick wall. “I’ve got a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”
“Let the girl go and no one gets hurt.” Having just recently graduated from security guard training, a change-in-career job after being laid off from the local car manufacturing plant, this was the officer’s first serious confrontation. Trembling slightly, he tightened his grip on the gun’s handle. “Come on, now, buddy. Your little girl looks pretty upset. Let her go.”
“I’ve had a bad day,” the hiding man said. “My wife has been ill. I’ve been living at the hospital for several weeks now. She died this morning.” The words echoed, repeatedly taunting the tormented man.
The guard sensed movement to his left. Glancing over his shoulder, he sighed with relief. At least half a dozen police, fully armed and wearing protective vests were amassed behind a Chevy SUV. “Keep the guy talking,” said a quiet voice.
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife. I know what that’s like. Mine died a couple of years ago. Cancer. Wasn’t anything the doctors could do.” He took two more baby steps.
“Do you have kids?” the man asks.
“Yeah, but they’re grown and out of the house. Is that little girl your only child?”
“No. I’ve got a son. He’s three. Jason. That’s his name. This here’s Cassie. She’s six. That’s all I’ve got left now.”
“Where’s your son?” Lowering his gun, the guard took one more step and turned so that his back rested against the container. “Is he at home?”
“He’s inside the store with my mother-in-law. She hates my guts. Calls me a no-good loser. Blames me for my wife’s illness.” The man’s voice grew in intensity with each word. “I’m not a loser, I tell you!” Shouting now, anger filled his words. “She hates my kids, too. Did you see how dirty Cassie is? Not one Goddamned bath. The whole time they were staying with her. What kind of person treats a kid like that? And you ought to see Jason! He’s filthy from head to toe. And she says I’m the nutty one.”
The guard realized that this man was not a kidnapper, but a parent trying to rescue his child from a horrific situation. After putting his gun back in its holster, the guard signaled the waiting police to stay put. “No one’s going to hurt you or Cassie. I’m Bob Johnson. What’s your name?
“Markovich. Stan. Stan Markovich.”
“So, Stan, why not step out into the light? Maybe we can get this all sorted out. Is there anything about you that I should worry about? Like do you have a criminal record?”
“A couple of traffic tickets, that’s all. I’m a good father and I was a faithful husband. I don’t care what my mother-in-law says. I love my family. Really I do,” Stan said as his voice fell to a whisper. “My mother-in-law wouldn’t let me see my kids. I tried to visit them every night, but she wouldn’t open the door.”
“How’d you know they were here at the store?”
“I parked down the street from the house. Sat there for hours. When the old bat took off, I followed her car. Lucky for me she had the kids.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“No. What’s the point? I looked all over the store for them. I heard Cassie’s voice. It sounded like she was crying. They were in the food section. When I looked around the aisle, Cassie was inches from me. So I grabbed her and ran.
The guard inched closer to the edge of the dumpster. He thought about peeking around to make sure the girl was safe, but then thought better of it. His chest tightened and he had difficulty breathing. “Not now,” he thought. “Now’s not the time to have a heart attack. Calm yourself. For the child.” He forcibly took several deep breaths.
“Cassie, go to the nice man,” Bob heard Stan say. “It’s all right. Everything’s going to be okay now. Go ahead. Stop crying, baby.”
A tiny foot, clad in a filthy sneaker peeked around the dumpster. Soon another foot appeared, slowly followed by the rest of the girl. Looking out from under overly long bangs, doleful eyes pierced Bob’s heart. “Come here, Cassie,” he called as he held out his large hand, a kindly smile lighting his face.
The child’s movements were like a wary cat’s. Her eyes darted about the parking lot, taking in the paltry lighting, the massed officers, the rhythmic cadence of the blinking lights of the gathered cruisers.
“It’s okay, child. Everything’s going to be fine now,” Bob said as the girl tentatively placed her tiny hand in his. “I’m going to take you over to those police officers. They’ll make sure you’re safe.” Together they walked, like a loving grandpa and grandchild.
“Good job, Johnson,” one of the officers said.
“Not bad for a rookie,” the captain slapped Bob on the back. “Smith, take this girl for an ice cream cone, will you?”
The entire crowd flinched when a single shot rang out. The sound reverberated through the paring lot, filling the night with a thundering roar.
“Oh, my God,” Bob said as he sank to his knees.