Chain Reaction: Chapter 1
Routine. Ordinary. Typical. Just what Bob and Elsie Cornwall did every Sunday morning. They pulled out their walking shoes, snapped the leash on the harness of their sable Sheltie, Herman, and went on their regular walk. Two blocks east, two blocks south, a circumnavigation of the high school, then back the way they came.
All was quiet and peaceful in the neighborhood as they strolled through on the way to the campus. Walking past the east side of the building, approaching the front of the school, they startled at an unexpected sound. With a rumble, a jacked-up, red pick-up truck tore away from the front, spraying dirt and clumps of grass.
Bob and Elsie stopped where they stood. If they had been ten feet further along, Elsie wondered, would the vehicle have run them down in its rush to flee? Herman barked loud and high, frightened and disturbed by the interruption of the morning’s quiet peace.
Still parked by the entrance, a large flatbed with wooden plank sides held containers partially filled with bins of grass clippings and leaves. On the steps leading inside, a man in a red flannel shirt, blue jeans and a ball cap stood abruptly. In one hand, he held a big, browned biscuit. A slice of ham slid out of his partially eaten breakfast and fell on the ground.
Blaring horns and squealing brakes drew their attention back to the red truck that had just run a stoplight as it pulled into the highway. It all happened so fast that Bob and Elsie didn’t have enough time to process their surroundings before the fury roared outward from inside of the school.
Bricks fell off the facade. The pillars at the entrance crumpled, burying the man on his lunch break. The shock knocked the two walkers to the ground. Bob dropped the leash as he fell and Herman ran off as fast as he could, his tail tucked between his legs.
For a moment, neither Bob nor Elsie could hear as the explosion reverberated in their ears. They looked at each other and blinked, then gingerly pushed up from the ground. Elsie screamed for Herman but the Sheltie was focused on his escape and could not hear the sound of her voice. He seemed to be heading in the direction of their home. She could only hope she’d find him there later. She rushed over to the rubble where the man had once stood.
Blood spattered over the busted bricks. The man’s legs, pinned under the fallen pillars, twisted at unnatural angles. His face was battered and his eyes wide open as they stared, visionless, into space. Elsie felt her head spin and a surge of bile rising in her throat. She threw her hand over her mouth and staggered away at a fast clip. She disgorged the contents of her stomach on the asphalt parking lot.
Bob rushed to her side and wrapped an arm around her as she continued to heave even after there was nothing left. ‘He’s dead?’ Bob whispered.
Elsie nodded her head. As a retired emergency room nurse, she’d seen a lot of gruesome injuries in the past but somehow, outside of the hospital environment, it felt more shocking and had a much greater emotional impact. She could smell the primitive scent of blood mingled with the construction-site scent of concrete, mortar and brick dust. Her eyes stung from the particles in the air. The sounds around her echoed in her ears, creating an internal roar that seemed louder than the blast itself.
In the apartment building across the exit road, windows flew open, people ran outside. Blocked from coming any closer by the tall chainlink fence that separated the building from the school, they wrapped their fingers through the holes as they stared in disbelief. Approaching sirens wailed, drowning out the sound of shouted questions from the spectators. By the time Elsie was erect again, marked and unmarked vehicles were screeching to a halt around her. An ambulance pulled up to the front of the school. And EMTs quick-stepped out of it, carrying bags of equipment and supplies.
Police officers asked Bob and Elsie for their names and then placed them in the back of separate cars. Elsie objected loudly to being parted from her husband. A young, freckled officer apologized, telling her it was necessary to keep them from talking together until they had been interviewed separately. Elsie knew it was senseless to argue but she resented her isolation just the same.
The wait felt interminable to Elsie. Her mind wandered to worries about Herman, making her oblivious to the approaching detective. She shouted out involuntarily when the front door of the vehicle jerked open and a woman with a face that bore subtle traces of old scars slid into the seat and leaned back towards her. Holding out her identification, she said, ‘I’m Lieutenant Pierce, Mrs Cornwall. I need to ask you a few questions.’
Elsie nodded mutely. Lucinda blew out a frustrated puff of air when Elsie said that she had not noticed the license plate number of the fleeing pick-up.
‘Was there anyone else in the area?’ Lucinda asked.
‘Herman,’ Elsie said.
‘Herman who? And where did he go?’
‘I wish I knew. He’s our dog. He ran off. He was frightened by the loud noises.’
Lucinda blew out another puff of air.
Elsie felt like an ass – an unhelpful ass. And now that Herman’s name was mentioned, she felt irresponsible for not grabbing his leash immediately, before he could run off down the street. What if he got lost? What if he were run over by a car? He had never run off before. Would he know how to find home? Would he know to wait for us?
‘Ma’am. Ma’am. Please focus over here. Please answer my questions. The sooner you do, the sooner you can go home.’
‘Please answer the question, ma’am.’
‘I’m sorry. What question?’
‘Did you see anyone else in the vicinity before or after the explosion?’
‘No. Not until the police cars pulled up. Well, except for the people on the other side of the fence by the apartments.’
‘Did you see the deceased before the building blew?’
‘Yes. When the truck pulled away, he jolted to his feet. He was holding a biscuit. There was a bite out of it. He looked confused.’
‘Did he say anything?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Did you speak to him after the explosion?’
‘No. I didn’t really understand what was happening. It all happened so quickly. The truck squealed out and then the loud noise. I didn’t even realize it was an explosion at first. It was odd seeing the bricks blow off the side of the building and the pillars start to tilt. Then I was on the ground. I don’t remember falling. I remember feeling off balance and then I was down. And my dog was running away. He wouldn’t stop. You have to let me go. I don’t know where he is. He’s frightened. He needs me. I need to see if he got home. I really need to go,’ she said, twisting at the door handle. It wouldn’t budge. She pounded on the glass and shouted, ‘Let me out of here!’
‘Ma’am, don’t panic. I just need to ask you a few more questions—’
‘No. I’m not answering anything – nothing more. I’m done until I know Herman is OK. I’m not saying another word until then.’
‘Ma’am, please be patient. We’ll get you home soon.’
‘No. Now.’ Elsie’s eyes flashed with anger and she jerked her head away, refusing to look at the lieutenant.
Lucinda sighed and stepped out of the car, closing the door behind her. Elsie checked the door handle again then watched as the detective went over to the vehicle where Bob sat being questioned. As Lucinda approached, another plainclothes officer stepped out of that sedan.
She watched the two women talk together and then heard Lucinda calling over to a uniformed officer, ‘Please give Mr and Mrs Cornwall a ride home, Collins.’
Lucinda returned to the vehicle where Elsie sat waiting and opened the rear door. ‘You sure you’re not injured, ma’am? That’s a nasty scrape on your left arm.’
Elsie raised the limb in question and looked at it, stunned. She hadn’t noticed it before. ‘Oh, that must have happened when I fell.’
‘There’s still an ambulance here. Do you want the paramedic to patch it up?’
‘No, no,’ Elsie said, shaking her head. ‘I just want to get home.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Don’t worry; I’m a nurse. I know how to care for this. It’s nothing, really.’
‘OK, if you’re certain. Come on over to the car where your husband is. Officer Collins will give you a ride home. I’m sure I’ll need to talk to you later. And here’s my card if you think of anything that you don’t recall right now.’
As Elsie stepped out, she heard an alarmed yell from a distant entrance to the school. ‘Lieutenant! Lieutenant! We need you in here now!’ the voice shouted.
Elsie watched as the detective took long, rapid steps, almost running, across the grass. She marveled at Lucinda’s sense of balance and ability to move so quickly over rough terrain in a straight skirt and higher heels than Elsie ever felt comfortable wearing even when she was standing still.