December 14, 1999
There were two patrol units at the scene. They were parked neatly against the curb, their emergency lights off, as if the officers had arrived to check out a minor disturbance. Although Rafe knew he'd been very close to the address when the call had come over the radio, he hadn't expected to be the first one to answer the request for backup.
He felt a stirring of dread. Suicide calls were the worst; the responding officers never knew if they were going to find a whacked-out psycho, a distraught housewife, or some druggie who'd suddenly decided it would be nice to take a cop along with him on his psychedelic journey to the afterlife. Dealing with a potential suicide took training and a finesse Rafe was certain he lacked.
Climbing out of his department-issue sedan, he pulled his black trench coat tightly around him to help ward off the morning chill, then paused a moment to take in the area: middle-income apartment buildings, neatly landscaped, probably with swimming pools and weight room on the premises. A comfortable enclave, where single people, newly married couples, and budding families found a comfortable rung on their climb up the economic ladder. It was a nice neighborhood, but not immune to the ills that plagued every strata of society, a place where suicide was uncommon but certainly not unheard of.
Adjusting his thoughts more toward the "distraught housewife" or "newly fired middle-management exec," Rafe headed for the glass double doors that led to the lobby of the apartment building.
A uniformed officer met him, anxiety and relief competing for control of his expression. "I'm glad you're here," the man said, grabbing Rafe by the elbow and ushering him into the elevator with the speed of a bargain-hunter steering a shopping cart toward the sale aisle. "It's a real mess up there."
'Up there,' Rafe gathered, was the eighteenth floor, since that was the button the cop punched as the elevator doors closed.
"Apparently, a next-door neighbor comes in every morning to get the kid off to school because the parents have to leave for work early or something. Now, she's too damn hysterical to tell us what the hell's going on, so we don't have a clue what to do."
And I will? Rafe couldn't follow the tumbling words. "Who's hysterical -- the little girl?"
The cop gave him a cock-eyed look that promised bad news to follow. "They didn't call it over the radio? Man, it's the neighbor who's screaming blue murder. The little girl is out on the ledge getting ready to jump."
Rafe felt completely out of his depth; any deeper and he'd need a life jacket. Oh, shit. "Little kids don't commit suicide. How old are we talking here?"
Again, the cop's look suggested that he thought Rafe was clueless, an assessment not far off the mark. "She's eight. I've heard of lots of kids killing themselves."
"Yeah, but -- " There was no point in trying to explain. Sure, kids killed themselves every day, and some of them even wanted to, but young children had a totally different perception of death: it wasn't a permanent condition. Like a cold, it was something you "got over." Rafe recalled the incident last year of a nine-year-old boy who had hanged himself, believing he'd survive the experience. The kid's friends had stood around and watched him do it. Like the victim, they hadn't believed the condition was permanent.
The elevator doors opened onto an hysterical babble of words that Rafe thought might have been Vietnamese. In the corridor, another cop was trying to calm a tiny, middle-aged woman who was incoherent with anxiety.
"We've asked for a translator," the cop with Rafe said, "and a child psychologist. Don't know when either one will get here. We even put out a call to Hernandez. She's the closest female officer."
Rafe thought Cheryl Hernandez -- childless, unmarried, and fresh from the Police Academy -- would probably resent the implication that she'd know what to do just because she was a woman. "What about the parents? Have you contacted them?"
"We're still trying to find out where they work."
"All right." Rafe paused in the thickly carpeted corridor long enough to give the woman's shoulder a squeeze. She gazed at him with hopeful, tear-filled eyes. He spoke calmly and with a lot more assurance than he felt. "I'm going to talk to the girl. Can you tell me her name?"
The woman nodded, but the rapid flow of language continued unabated.
The cop beside her sighed with undisguised irritation. "She keeps says something that sounds like Sabine."
Rafe never took his eyes off the woman's face. "Sabine?" he asked gently. "Is that her name?"
Again, the woman nodded, her words trailing off until she stood in silent misery wringing her hands.
Sabine? If names meant anything, Rafe wondered if the girl's parents knew they'd settled their daughter with a name that guaranteed she'd grow up to be a sultry porn star...
...if she grew up at all.
"Thank you." He went through the open door of the apartment. A small guest bath and coat closet were to his right, while directly before him was the living room, beyond which was a small balcony with a view toward the snow-capped mountains to the north. If there had ever been furniture on the balcony, it had been brought in for the winter, but Rafe suspected it was pretty chilly out there year round.
One thing he noticed right away was the absence of holiday decorations. A few Christmas cards lay in a haphazard pile amid some unopened bills on a small side table just inside the door, but they were the only evidence in the tidy apartment that Christmas was just a few days away.
There was no sign of the child, so he looked back at the cop who had followed him in. Wordlessly, the man pointed left, and Rafe went down the short hall. Bedrooms greeted him on both sides. Straight ahead were double doors that he guessed led to the master bedroom. On the left was a smaller room decorated in a dinosaur motif. Colorful dinosaur shapes decorated the smoothly made bed. A disarray of plastic model parts cluttered a tiny worktable, while overhead a large mobile of the solar system bobbled in a strong current of air. It was this, the cold morning breeze blowing through the open window of the bedroom across the hall to his right, which led him to correct place.
It was definitely a little girl's room, decorated in sunny yellow and white. A canopied bed with a rumple of bedding was flanked by white-enamel nightstands holding small lamps with yellow shades. A cluster of stuffed animals crowded a white wicker chair nearby. On the walls were posters of unicorns, Princess Somebody from The Phantom Menace, and a young pop singer Rafe thought was called Jewel. With the exception of the unmade bed, the room was like the rest of the apartment -- neat without being fussy.
Another police officer was leaning out the window. Rafe crossed the carpeted floor and tapped the man on the shoulder. The cop jumped back in surprise, then grimaced sheepishly.
"Sorry, Detective, I didn't hear you." He relinquished his position by the window. "She's all yours."
"Has she said anything?"
The cop flushed. "Nothing I'd repeat to my own kids."
Rafe had to bend over so he could get his head outside. The decorative ledge, he noted with satisfaction, was sturdy and wide. The girl was about four feet to his right, just beyond his reach. She stood with her back to the wall, her hands pressed against the blocks.
Rafe spoke quietly. "Excuse me."
She looked at him. She was a lovely child, with big brown eyes set in a heart-shaped face framed by layers of straight blond hair. A thin little thing, she looked fragile enough to be blown off the ledge. Her nightgown and fuzzy slippers were scant defenses against the morning cold.
She didn't look scared, or particularly happy to see him. "I thought you were that police man again."
Rafe smiled slightly. "You didn't like him?"
She sniffed. "He said it was cold out here."
"What did you say to him?"
She rolled her expressive eyes. "Duh."
In spite of the situation, Rafe laughed. "Good answer." He didn't know if he'd be able to begin a worthwhile dialog with the girl, but maybe if he just kept her talking long enough, the child expert would arrive and take over. "My name's Rafe. Your neighbor told me your name is Sabine."
"Sadie." She said it with a finality that brooked no disagreement. "I hate Sabine."
"Sadie. Yes, that's a pretty name." So much for introductions. She ignored him again, looking first outward toward the mountains, then down to the street eighteen stories below. He didn't want her looking down, and frantically sought something else to get her attention. He saw the multitude of yellow rats adorning the front of her nightgown. "Is that Pokemon on your nightshirt?"
This time, the look she gave him was pitying. "It's Pikachu. Pokemon is more than one creature."
Don't I know it? He couldn't seem to enter a store without being bombarded by displays of the toy phenomenon. Pokemon is a force of nature that's destroying the budgets of every family with small children around the world. He wondered briefly if that was what all this was about. Maybe she'd been told she wasn't getting all the Pokemon toys she wanted for Christmas. He shrugged. "Sorry. Guess it's pretty obvious I don't have any kids."
"You're lucky." This time, she sounded bitter.
"Not lucky. Just where I am in my life right now." He slowly lowered himself to his knees so he could rest his arms more comfortably against the windowsill. He wondered if he'd be able to grab her if she tried to jump, and glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was back there to grab him. The cop who had been with him in the elevator was across the room, talking softly into his shoulder mike. Rafe didn't dare take his attention off the girl long enough to tell him to get closer.
He was on his own, in more ways than one.
"Are you going to arrest me?"
The question was unexpected. "No, why do you think I'd arrest you?"
"I thought it was against the law to jump off buildings."
Only if you survive the fall. "Sadie, can you tell me why you're doing this?"
"So I can tell your mommy and daddy and your friends. They'll want to know why."
She thought about it, then nodded as if she found it a reasonable request. "I made a deal with God."
Rafe's heart plummeted. It was bad enough he didn't know a thing about children, but he also wasn't even close to what he'd call a religious man. In fact, except for odd moments of deep introspection usually brought about by too much beer, he seldom thought about religion at all. He'd broken all Ten Commandments to one degree or another, especially the one about taking the Lord's name in vain or something. Well, okay, he hadn't *murdered* anyone, or even *killed* anyone for that matter, although he'd wounded a few in the line of duty. But except for childhood Sunday school, he hadn't given much thought to God or his own beliefs about him...or Him...or whatever. He tried to stay calm. "What sort of deal?"
Sadie's mouth tightened into a grim little circle before she relaxed her lips again to answer. "About the bad things."
"The bad things?"
She nodded. "My Uncle Dean got killed in a car wreck."
"When did that happen?"
"Before T'anks -- Thanksgiving."
Rafe thought maybe he'd reached the core of her sadness. "Did you really like your Uncle Dean?"
"He smoked fat cigars and smelled funny." She sighed. "I miss him. He was Mommy's brother."
Figuring he was finally getting somewhere, Rafe pondered what to say next. Instead, she surprised him again. "Last week, Daddy's business partner got cancer and died. Daddy said he'd been sick a long time, but I didn't know. Uncle Frank -- he wasn't my real uncle, but I called him Uncle Frank -- was really nice to me." She was starting to shiver noticeably now, and her words stuttered from between chattering teeth. "I miss him, too."
Rafe knew he didn't have much time left. Sooner or later, her legs would go numb or hypothermia would make her too mentally sluggish to be reasoned with. "Those are very bad things," he agreed, speaking in a normal tone of voice because he guessed Sadie wouldn't stand for anything that smacked of condescension. "It's hard losing people you love, even tougher to lose them right on top of one another."
She nodded, inelegantly wiping her runny nose with one tightly clenched fist. "That's two."
"I heard Gramma talk about it one night when no one thought I was listening." She frowned at a new thought. "They do that a lot."
Rafe sought to understand. "Your parents and grandmother talk a lot when they think you can't hear them?" She nodded. "What did your grandma say?"
For a moment, Sadie looked as if she wasn't going to answer him. Finally, when she spoke, she said the words with an awe that bordered on reverence. "She said -- 'Bad things come in threes'."
Bad things come in threes? Sure, it was a nonsensical superstition, and yet the anecdotal truth of the statement couldn't be denied. How many celebrity deaths had come in groups of three? It had been a magic number for both good and ill since ancient times, and even today it played a strong role in cultural beliefs around the world.
The truth slammed into Rafe like a sledgehammer. For a moment, he couldn't find his breath. When he did, it was to discover his mouth had gone so dry he almost couldn't form words. "Sadie, you made a deal with God to be number three?"
"Yes." She answered him defiantly, as if certain he would scoff.
"Who -- who did you offer to trade places with?" He thought suddenly of the room directly across the hall with its neatly made bed covered with the dinosaur comforter. "Is it your brother? Is that his room across the hall?"
She nodded again, disconsolate now. "Patrick. He's in the hospital with luke-nemia. He's gonna die soon and then I'll never see him too just like Uncle Dean and Uncle Frank."
"And you think if you die first and become number three, then Patrick will live?"
"He will live!" She spat the words at him defiantly. "Bad things come in threes."
Rafe didn't even know where his next words came from or why he spoke with such bluntness. "Did God agree to this deal?"
She looked truculent now, and some color rose in her pale cheeks as she blushed. "Yes." It was a little word, spoken in a very tiny voice.
"Well, shoot," Rafe said, an edge of disappointment infusing his tone. "I always thought God was better than that. A shame he turned out to be so fickle."
She was taken aback. "Pickle?"
"Fickle. Willing to trade one thing for another on a whim. I was raised to believe we all have a purpose in God's plan." There went another Commandment, this one the one about lying. But what the hell, it was for a good cause. "I always thought God had special things in mind for each of us."
"That's what I was told as a child. Weren't you ever told that?"
"No. Mommy and Daddy don't talk about God much, and Gramma only talks about God's will and stuff." Her cheeks scrunched up as she pondered. "Why does God need a will? I thought he couldn't die."
Rafe didn't laugh. "'Will' refers to what God wants. Like the deal you made with him -- are you sure he agreed to it, that it's his will?"
She blushed again. "Yes."
He smiled slightly. She was a lousy liar. "Maybe you misunderstood what you thought he wanted."
Tears streamed across her cheeks, and she brushed them away with angry swipes. The movement unbalanced her, and she swayed precariously on the ledge.
Rafe almost lunged out the window to grab her, and his panicked move startled her. For one terrible instant, he was certain she was going to fall, but she found her balance again and pressed back against the wall. Anxiety made him speak impulsively. "Sadie. Sadie, you need to come inside now. It's too cold out here for you."
She shook her head violently. The breeze caught her blond hair and blew it into her face. Rafe's heart stopped as she pushed the strands aside with careless, angry motions. To him, the ledge seemed a lot narrower than it had right after his arrival.
Her words were a challenge. "What about Patrick?"
He forced down his anxiety. "Sadie, I don't know what will happen to your brother. I can't tell you if he's going to live or if he's going to die. But I do know that trying to trade your life for his isn't what God wants. He has other plans for you."
"Are you sure?"
She sounded hopeful, and Rafe was certain she didn't really want to jump despite her willingness to do it to save her brother. "I'm not sure about much, but I am sure about that."
"But why does God want Patrick to die?"
"Sadie, I don't know the answer to that, but there are really smart people who do. They can answer those questions for us."
"Us? You'll ask with me?"
"Sure. Maybe it's time I found some answers, too." He reached toward her. "Come on, Sadie. We'll ask the questions together. Right now, I'll bet some hot chocolate would taste good. What d'ya say?"
Her fingers were cold and stiff, and he didn't know if she had the strength to move the few short feet back to the window. Standing up, he leaned out awkwardly to reach her and closed his hand firmly around her wrist. "Come towards me now."
Slowly, she shuffled sideways, her teeth chattering audibly as she drew closer. Still, Rafe knew his grip was firm and that she was free of the danger of falling. Patiently, he let her move at her own pace, then wrapped his other arm around her waist when she was close enough.
The uniformed cop rushed over to help him lift Sadie through the bedroom window. "Mrs. Nguyen, the neighbor, managed to tell us where the parents are, so we tracked them down. Apparently, they go to the hospital early every morning to see their son. He's -- "
Rafe grabbed the cheerful yellow comforter off the bed and wrapped it around the shivering child. "I know. Sadie told me all about it."
He helped her arrange the soft folds so she had use of her hands and feet, then straightened up, stretching to relieve a kink in his back caused from bending over for so long. "They'll find us in the kitchen having some hot chocolate."
He felt a light pressure and looked down to find her tiny fingers wrapped around his own.
He returned the squeeze gently. "Is there any other way?"
She tugged at his hand, and he leaned down so she could whisper in his ear.
"Are you an angel?"
Now it was his turn to blush. "No, honey, I'm not." Surreptitiously, he looked at the uniformed officer to see if he'd overheard her question. Ah, shit; he was never going to live this down. He ignored the cop and smiled at Sadie. "Let's go fix that hot chocolate."
January 23, 2000
Dear Mr. Rafe,
You probably don't remember me. This is Sadie. You told me God had a plan for me and went with my mommy and me to see Pastor Rob to talk about stuff. Well, you were right! Doctors took a bone arrow from me and shot it into Patrick. I don't know how it works, but he is ok now and getting better every day. If I had jumped, my bone arrows would have broken so I could not do this for him. You are wrong about one thing, tho -- you are an angel! Love U, Sadie (I will be 9 years old next month)