He looked down at the lifeless corpse that lay on the ground beneath him. The sight made him feel almost sick to his stomach. Joseph's heartbeat kept getting faster and harder and louder. To him it felt and sounded like bullets being fired steadily into his own body—bullets that he knew he deserved.
This is your fault, whispered the voice in the back of his mind. All your fault.
Joseph couldn't take it anymore. He forced himself to look up, away from the body, for just one moment at least. He knew that if he allowed guilt to paralyze him now, then he would become useless, unable to focus on doing the rest of his job or to salvage any small vestige of control from the situation. He glanced around the area, trying to distract himself, even if only momentarily. Broken glass was still all over the floor from the bullet that had shattered the building's front window. The two bank tellers stood silently behind their desks, glancing around the room with unreadable expressions just like he was—probably also trying to forget what they had just seen.
There were customers in the bank too. A middle-aged woman wiping tears on tissues that she had carried in her purse. A young couple in their twenties—maybe newlyweds—hugging each other and trying to cope. A mother of maybe thirty who was holding her small children. The younger one, a boy of probably three or four, was crying loudly, and a girl who looked a couple years older was asking her mother question after question about what had just happened and why. The mother kept reassuring them that everything would be okay, but Joseph could tell that she didn't believe it herself. He wished he could send them all home right then and tell them to just do their best to forget what they had seen and get on with their lives, but he couldn't. These people were all witnesses and they needed to be held for questioning.
It wasn't fair, Joseph thought. These were all regular people whose only crime had been needing to deposit or withdraw money, and happening to come to the wrong place at the wrong time to do so. Their day—if not their entire week and even aspects of their whole lives—had just been ruined in the most horrifying way possible, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it now. Of course, the same was true to a much greater degree for the man lying on the ground, whose white hair had become stained with red from the blood that currently puddled around him. He was just an average, ordinary man who had come to the bank that day without knowing that he would never walk out of it. He may have had a wife waiting for him at home, or grandchildren who looked forward to the next time they would get to visit him. They would be in for a major disappointment.
It took Joseph a few moments to register that his name was being called.
"Are we gonna get these people in for questioning soon?"
Joseph looked up and stared blankly at Officer Deborah Lee, his coworker and occasional partner on the force.
"Ramirez?" she asked when he didn't answer.
"Huh?" Joseph shook his head unconsciously. "Oh. Debbie. Yeah. Questioning...um, yeah. That's probably a good idea."
"Okay. There are cars coming to bring all of them back to the station to get their statements. We already got the perps handcuffed and they're being held at the station too. The murder weapon has been bagged and documented for evidence, and the coroner's on his way to look at the body."
"Uh, good," Joseph managed to say, quietly and halfheartedly. "Sounds like everything's being taken care of."
Debbie's hair was graying and her face sported a few wrinkles. She was at least a few years older than Joseph and had been on the force longer, so she was a higher rank than he was, and probably more experienced in some areas. She stepped close to him and looked him in the eye.
"Look. Joe," she said firmly, a serious note in her tone. "I know it's hard. I know it's probably one of the hardest things you'll ever have to face in your life. I've been doing this for six years and I can tell you that it's true what they say—you never get used to it."
"Yeah," muttered Joseph. "I bet."
"But you can't let it get to you," she told him. "You can't let it keep you down. Yes, it's horrible, but you've got to move on if you're gonna try to stop things like this in the future."
Joseph was only half-listening to her. "You don't understand," he said. "It was my fault."
"No," Debbie assured him. "You can't think like that—it'll eat you up inside. Believe me, I know. What happened here today wasn't your fault. You did everything you could."
Joseph began to protest. "But I was the one—"
"You didn't kill him," Debbie pointed out, trying earnestly to lift her partner's damaged spirits. "A criminal with a gun killed him. He pulled the trigger, not you. You tried to stop him. You're the good guy here, Joe! It wasn't your fault!"
"But I was stupid," Joe answered. "I—I didn't listen. The guy—the robber—said he would shoot if I came any closer. I didn't take him seriously. I didn't think he would really do it. But...but..." His voice trailed off.
"You came closer?" Debbie asked.
"I was trying to stop him," Joseph explained. "I was talking to him, trying to calm him down, but also trying to get close enough to stop him if I had to. And then...well...I guess I shouldn't have come any closer."
Debbie swore. It was a rookie mistake, but Joseph was still a rookie in many ways. "How long have you been an officer?" she asked him to remind herself.
He thought about it for a second. "About three months. Almost four."
She shook her head. Joseph should have known better. No, he hadn't pulled the trigger or killed the man, but what he had done would be found out when the chief of police got his statement. She wouldn't be surprised to see him get reprimanded in some way, even suspended from the force. Joseph was looking up at her with questions in his eyes, begging to hear what she was going to say next. Hoping that he could somehow be absolved of his shame, but knowing that he was at fault—and knowing that she knew it, too.
She did know it, but now was not the time to tell him that. Now was the time to help the man, to give him some slight encouragement if at all possible, before the guilt he clearly felt broke him beyond repair.
"Well, we'll figure it out," she said. "But right now...just keep doing what you're doing...and try not to think about it too much. We'll be able to go back to the station soon enough."
Joseph looked away from her, down at the ground, and didn't speak. Debbie knew that the damage had been done and it was probably too late. No mere words of hers would be able to help him now.