Leaning against the mailbox a block and a half away from the bus stop, Samuel Romano's hawk eyes scoured the cluttered street. His knuckles were white as he clutched the rubber grip on his cane. He hated that thing. He only brought it to ease Veronica's nerves and to avoid another you're-gonna-get-yourself-killed spat. Samuel gave her enough ammunition tossing aside paper after paper about the city's child murders for the last six months, swearing that he would stop the next one. And when another carved body turned up in an alley, he swore he would stop the next one—injured or not. That was his duty as a policeman and a father.
Headlines sang his foul theme, the latest being: The Pied Piper Chimes With Gory Glory.
He wanted to burn them and see this stretch of history gone with the acrid smoke as black as this murderer's heart. His frustration stemmed from his injury. He was mere feet from the Piper, gun raised, ready to stop him from claiming another life. Victory's sweet tune sliced through the alley as he unsheathed his pistol.
But he blew it.
Something about that face made him falter—its softness didn't scream murderer. No. Something quite different. Before he could pull the trigger, a blur cracked Samuel's head against the brick wall and jammed a knife point into his knee. When his eyes refocused, the Piper and child were gone. He never saw the Piper again, but the child's body turned up in six pieces in a dumpster on 5th Avenue.
Never again, Samuel thought, rubbing his knee that twinged with phantom pains. Next time I see you, Piper, one of us will be dead.
His cell phone buzzed. It didn't register immediately as he glared at the bus stop. He slapped at his pocket and yanked the battered plastic from his slacks. The screen read RONNIE – HOME. Samuel stared at the words, debating, and then hit SEND.
"Sam, I clean up and find an empty gun box? Are you trying to get yourself killed?" And she was off. "Are you trying to scare Cole to death? Why in the hell would you bring your gun to pick him up from school?"
"Nothing wrong with being…safe," he said as gray eyes spotted a school bus trudging down the street. He only felt safe when he knew his son was in school. PS144—now known as Kelsey Carver Elementary—was once the farthest from safe any school could be. But a new principal took charge, forcing conferences with the board of education and raising funds and school pride. He paved the way for what would be the gem of the city. Samuel thought it was downhill ever since Carver was replaced with that pretty moron. "That psychopath is out here somewhere and you better believe I'll be ready for—"
"What? What do you think you can do, Samuel?" she cried. "You're supposed to be on medical leave, not acting like a whiny baby who can't have his toy!"
"You of all people should understand, Veronica." He watched a young boy of nine with wispy brown hair matching his step off of the bus, clutching his thick backpack straps and waving at the windows. "I've got to be ready. I won't let anyone get hurt. Not if I can stop it."
"But you can't! Sweet Jesus!" Static crinkled over the line. Samuel imagined her rubbing her hazel eyes, glassy with frustrated tears. "Please see sense," she finally said. "I love you. I don't want you dead because you picked a fight you can't win."
The bus pulled away. Cole skipped past bustling city dwellers with his beaming smile that Samuel could only imagine from that distance. If Veronica knew how far from the bus stop he waited every day, she would have ample reason to yell. Once, like other fathers, he stood right beside the bench, waiting to hold his boy. Now there was a plan. Maybe the Piper was nearby—his skin prickled at the thought—and distance would tell. It was risky, but that murderer had to be caught to save his son.
And then Cole stopped—hailed by a lounging man on a nearby stoop. Samuel hadn't thought much of the man bopping his head to an iPod. The two exchanged words and then the man offered him one of the ear buds. Samuel's eyes narrowed.
"And what about Cole?" he said into the phone.
"What about Cole?"
"He needs to be protected. You know kids in our area have been attacked."
"Then you call the police, Samuel! And what does it matter? You're with him, aren't you? If you or Cole gets in any trouble, you call the police. You don't need your gun."
The man stood, handing Cole the iPod and the second ear bud. Delighted, Cole snatched them up and trained his eyes on the device. Samuel tensed. He moved his cane beneath his arm and slid his hand underneath his jacket to his belt.
Come on, son, he thought. Come on.
And then the man placed a bony hand on Cole's back, guiding him in the opposite direction with little resistance as the boy lost himself in the music.
"I am the police." He hung up and jammed his phone back in his pocket.
Samuel ran down the rest of that block and across the perpendicular street, narrowly avoiding an oncoming taxi cab. Its blare was trivial to the pounding in his ears. The steel beneath his palm was as cool as the sweat forming on his brow. He closed the distance between himself and Cole still bouncing to the music. He could make out the Piper's shaggy hair, longer than when they first met, and began drawing his gun when a tattered man interfered, leaping from his seat on the littered cement sidewalk. He tugged Samuel's arm.
"Haven't ate all week, man," he moaned. "Got a dolla'? Just one dolla'?"
"Just a dolla', man!"
"Get the hell off of me!" He drew his gun. "I'm a cop! Keep off!"
His shout alerted the Piper. Coal eyes locked on his for a moment and Samuel hesitated just like before. Those weren't just the eyes of a killer. They sagged with experience in something else. Then the Piper ran, dragging Cole with him. Samuel shoved the homeless man aside and gave chase, cringing every time he landed on his right leg. He could see the pair gaining ground. He threw his cane aside as if it would lighten him. They rounded the corner with at least a ten second gap. He would lose them.
If he could hear his son's voice, he could follow the Piper. But that damn music!
He rounded the corner. Cole was treading behind the Piper's long strides as he was forced across the street. They disappeared into an alley on the next block between a crumbling brick hotel and a pizzeria. Samuel skirted around honking cars and didn't bother flashing his badge as he focused on that alley. Rather than following, he trailed the sidewalk by the convenient store on the corner beside the restaurant. Just as he reached the next corner, heart hammering, he saw the Piper run out of the back alley and down the street. Samuel stiffened.
Where was Cole?
"Stop! Police!" he shouted. Of course it never stopped his runner. "Freeze, Piper!"
The man crossed the block in front of a truck and turned into another alley. Samuel kept up, but he could hardly ignore the pain in his leg despite his adrenaline. From the entrance he saw the Piper jump onto a dumpster and then leap onto a high chain link fence, laughing an obscene chime that sparked a jolt down Samuel's spine. He swore. He would never make it over that fence with his bum leg, but that couldn't be the end. The Piper may vanish like smoke, but he would catch it.
Samuel ran back down the street and turned right. People quickly parted when they saw the man with the gun dripping sweat down his clenched, square jaw. From around the corner Samuel heard tires screech followed by a resounding crash and screams. Seconds later he saw chaos. Bystanders hovered towards a familiar black sedan crumpled against the hood of a white work van. A bruised man staggered from the van, jeans and tee shirt torn. He looked at the smoking wreckage, then over his shoulder. Shocked eyes met again. Samuel saw the ruthlessness—and the concern. Then the Piper's eyes crinkled with glee and he ran.
Samuel's mind rang. Veronica trapped. Cole missing. Piper escaping—no! He stopped, aimed his gun, and let off three shots. More screams followed, but only one mattered.
The Piper dropped.
Samuel limped through the sea of terrified eyes and watched the Piper sprawled in a bloody pool. Bile rose in his throat. Kneeling, he said, "I swore I'd catch you, you son of a bitch. Where's my son?"
The Piper forced his laugh that gurgled rather than chimed. He spat blood onto the street.
"Bastard!" Samuel pulled him up by his shirt. "Where the hell—? Christ!" He dropped the dying man smiling through red stained teeth.
"Recognition," the Piper said. "A+."
"K—Kelsey Carver?" Life had deteriorated him to a withering shell. "Why would you—?"
"What can I say? I have a way with children. But not with parents. I raised that school from the ashes—my phoenix! And for what? So some politician that doesn't give a damn could come in and look better in press photos? I had nothing but that school and you took it from me!" He cringed, but smiled again. "The world's gone to hell. If you want to ruin it more, I'll save the children from such a fate."
"Bastard! That's no excuse!" Yet his heart moved.
Carver laughed through grunts of pain. "I saved those kids. They won't suffer when that school turns back to ash. Dear Cole included."
"Where's my son?" Only more off tune laughter responded. And then the Piper went quiet and his eyes lost focus. "Dammit, Carver, my boy!" Nothing. He sprang up, ran past the crowd, past Veronica stumbling from their wrecked car screaming for him and Cole, past reality and towards the last place he had seen his son. He shouted his name to the heavens, praying for an answer.
The alley behind the restaurant housed several reeking dumpsters brimming with trash bags, but for all Samuel knew, Cole could have been somewhere else entirely. One thing at a time. He tossed aside dozens of bags from each dumpster, each grunt fueled with increasing anguish. In the third dumpster, he found something out of the ordinary. His heart sank, but he steeled himself and dragged his limp son from beneath a few layers of trash. An ear bud cord left angry red indents around his neck and the back of his head was sticky and dripping.
"Cole, kiddo, c'mon," he said, unraveling the cord and cradling Cole's head in his lap.
"You've got to open your eyes. Please!"
He sat in painful silence, about to lose hope, when Cole squinted and peered up at his father through bloodshot eyes. "Da—ddy. I don't—like Mr. Carver's—song."
Samuel fought back tears and hugged his son close, but the Piper's words rattled him. What kind of world had he brought his son back to with psychos who mutilate children and bastards that destroy a man's life in the name of a superficial face? Where people weren't trustworthy and father's had to tote guns to bring their children home from school? This was the world the Piper wanted to save Cole from—and Samuel couldn't blame him. But there were proper ways to bring change. Kelsey Carver knew this. The Piper didn't.
And part of Samuel didn't either. He held Cole's hand and dialed 9-1-1. To save him.