This story is by Ashleigh House and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Let her go.” I’d told him in the strongest voice I could, gun held steady in my hands, eyes locked into his. “Let her go; I won’t ask again.”
I’m not sure how convincing it sounded. Inside I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. The blood rushed through my ears; my heart clogged my throat, my knuckles white where I gripped the gun tight to stop my hands from shaking. Overwhelmed with panic at the unexpected turn of events, I tried to muster up some false confidence. Now was not the time to fold like a cheap suit, her life was at stake.
The ‘her’ being Melody Johnson; eighteen. The latest victim, turned hostage, of the River Bed Killer.Upon my arrival to apprehend said killer, he had placed her in a headlock, his gun pressed firmly to her bloody temple. That was the moment the debilitating panic set in. He’d demanded in a deep, gravelly voice that -unlike mine- showed no signs of falseness, that I drop my gun, let him go or he would shoot her.
“I put cameras all around this building, I know your backup isn’t anywhere near us. So put your gun down, let me go and she lives.” I found myself at a crossroads. In a moment I’m still ashamed of, I stopped to think.
To let him go would be career suicide; my job and reputation were already on the line. This man might never be caught again and the four people he had killed would never get their justice. But letting him go meant Melody would live. If I kept my gun, he would shoot her, but there was that possibility that I would catch him. If I was quick enough I could shoot him, but that would risk shooting her. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, life or death, trying to pick a lesser of several evils. If I hadn’t made so many terrible decisions leading up to this point, perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a bad situation.
Thirteen months prior to my stand-off with the River Bed Killer, I had been assigned to investigate a hand found washed up on a small River Thames’ bank in the Battersea area of London. A new detective only a year in, I was eager to please and took the case with poorly concealed excitement. It was a thrilling find, a case that if solved, would do wonders to my career. The hand turned out to be part of a full corpse, found when forensics had searched the river. The investigation began and an autopsy was conclusive of murder.
Before I had gotten anywhere near solving the case however, another hand had washed up, then a foot and later a finger. The media imaginatively dubbed these the ‘River Bed Killings’. As the investigation dragged on without any arrests, they had taken to calling out the police, asking when the killer would be caught. It was a question I was struggling to answer and everyone knew it. There was talk of reassigning the case to someone else. I had become the embarrassment of Scotland Yard.
I spent my every waking hour slaving over the case files. The victims all lived in the Battersea area. All young females with no apparent connections. They went missing overnight and were all killed in abandoned warehouses. Forensic techs had made a list of all abandoned warehouses in the area, totalling eight. Trace particulates identified a different warehouse each time. Officers were stationed at the warehouses the killer had yet to use but he wasn’t biting.
It became a waiting game. Criminals this diligent always slipped up eventually, that’s how they got caught. I had too many people to answer to; I needed a slip-up desperately.
The slip-up finally happened the day I spent three hours in the boss’s office, being informed as to how I would hand the case over to another Detective. I tried to save myself by explaining a lead I found that morning; a young girl had been taken off Burberry Avenue in a red Honda yesterday afternoon. I told them this was the slip up I had been waiting for but they claimed it was all conjecture, grasping at straws. The report didn’t detail a struggle, she appeared to go willingly. The plate check turned up no owner. I left the office feeling a cloud of defeat settle over me.
Later, as I gathered the case together for reassignment, a report came through; a young girl, Melody Johnson, eighteen, hadn’t returned to school from her lunch break yesterday. I was reluctant to put two and two together. She matched the description of the girl from yesterday but the driver of the Red Honda could have been anyone. My gut disagreed, telling me that this was the slip up; taken during the day not at night and that I should go and pursue it.
So I did.
There were three warehouses the killer had not hit yet but to take her there seemed too predictable. If the killer thought we were on to him and had officers at the ones yet to be used, he would go back to the first four warehouses. In my attempt to rid myself of any further humiliation regarding another cold lead, I neglected to call for backup, traveling to the four warehouses solo. This was my first terrible mistake.
The first two came up cold but on the third I struck gold. I felt my stomach drop to my feet as I heard a faint scream from inside the building. I quickly phoned in for back up and entered. I should have waited for the other officers to arrive, another mistake, but the end was so close, the possibility of finally catching the killer, so I entered.
I was quick to spot him through a large opening in one of the rusted warehouse walls. Melody sat behind him, her blonde hair matted with dirt and her face caked in blood. She was in a decaying old chair. Not bound or tied down, but with the unnatural angle her foot appeared at, she didn’t look to be going anywhere. In the corner was a long table lined with an array of tools. At the end sat a laptop, showing a feed from what appeared to be cameras outside the building. I could see my car on the screen; he knew I was here.
He had stepped away from her for a moment so I made my move, rushing into the room. “Drop your weapon, hands in the air.” I yelled to him. He stilled. Dropping the knife to the ground and slowly raising his hands. “On the ground, hands behind your back.” My adrenaline was high, I could feel the thrill of an arrest coming but at the last minute he caught me off guard. Moving fast, he grabbed Melody from the chair, roughly pulled her in front of him and took a gun from the waist band of his trousers, pointing it at her head. He was calm, too calm. He knew I was coming, the cameras proved that, and this was his plan all along. I should have seen it coming.
That’s how I had found myself in such a bad situation, with so many awful choices to make. However as I looked into the pained and pleading eyes of Melody for the first time, I felt the haze of panic evaporate and my mind clear.
I had no one to blame but myself for being here.
If I hadn’t of been in such a rush to close the case and return my reputation to its former glory I would’ve been more careful; calling for backup when I left the station, not charging in without a second thought, not putting someone’s life at a greater risk than it already was.
I have come to regret deeply, ever entertaining the notion that achieving justice and restoring my career was more important than Melody’s life. There was no best bad choice, no lesser of evils. I was not stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was putting the gun down and saving her life. Whatever happened after that did not matter. I could only hope that he kept his word and let her go. To put any trust in a killer seemed foolish, but it was all I had.
Crouching slowly, I laid my gun on the ground, hands steady. “There. Gone.” I told him in a strong voice. There was no false confidence now; my choice was made. He had thrown Melody towards me then and took off. She stumbled forward, standing just long enough for me to catch her before we both fell to the floor. I’m not sure how long we sat there on the ground before back up came, but as I held her broken body, shaking in relief, I knew I’d made the right choice.