Town Without Mercy

Chapter One

The Concord Park Memorial Fairgrounds was bursting with energy. The parade route ended at the park where colorful floats and antique cars circled the grounds like covered wagons. Perched on the portable bleachers, the high school band trumpeted Lee Greenwood's "I'm Proud to Be an American." Adults and teenagers joined in song, while little children ran about twirling sparklers into the night sky. Old Glory proudly waved atop the small white gazebo where the mayor and the city councilmen fanned themselves in the July heat. Everyone anxiously checked their watches for the fireworks display to start promptly at 10:00 PM. 

10:57 p.m., Thursday July 4, 2013

"We interrupt this program to bring you a special report."

The announcement jerked me from my slumber the minute the staged laughter from the sitcom ended. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I tried to focus on the screen. Melanie Myers, my co-worker from WJLA-7, professionally coiffed with a deep, grave voice stared back at me through the flat screen. 

"At 10:15 PM, in a small bedroom community outside of Chevy Chase, Maryland, an unidentified shooter opened fire into the crowd at the 4th of July fireworks celebration at Concord Park Memorial Fairgrounds."

I screamed for Jodi. "Mercedes is at the fireworks. Oh God!"

Jodi appeared in the doorway from the kitchen, barefoot, with a dishtowel flung over her shoulder. "Adele, what is it?"

It had been a long time since Jodi and I had any alone time. This was the first weekend in four months that I had not been away on assignment as a TV news correspondent with WJLA-7. Lately, Jodi had been doing the job of two parents —plus her own career as head chef at Clive's Restaurant, in the Adams Morgan district of D.C.

"The park— there has been a shooting at the park." 

Melanie continued on the screen. "We are trying to obtain all the facts. From what we can understand, an unidentified shooter opened fire into the crowd as the fireworks commenced. Many people where unaware when they mistook the gunshots for fireworks. It is undetermined at this time how many shots were fired and the extent of the injuries or fatalities. The suspect was shot and apprehended by a local police officer." 

My foggy brain instantly cleared. I sat up straight and untangled the afghan twisted around my feet. Behind me I heard a gasp. I turned to see Jodi, hands pressed tightly over her mouth, staring at the screen. We were holding our breath as we watched live footage of people streaming out of the park. I strained to find Mercedes safely leaving the grounds among the crowd. 

"Mon Dieu! What if she's shot?" Jodi shrieked as she slid down the wall to the floor.

The sound of screaming sirens startled me from my trance. The room was suddenly ablaze with red flashing lights appearing through the window of our sixth-floor condo. In my heart I knew the sirens and lights were about Mercedes.

The buzzer on the wall announced we had a visitor at the main door of the building.

"Yes?" I managed to squeak into the intercom. 

"Chevy Chase police, ma’am. Please let us in."

I pressed the button to allow access to the lobby and elevator, and ran my fingers through my short, dark hair, fluffing the bed-head on one side caused by falling asleep on the sofa. Jodi pulled herself up from the floor on long, wobbly legs and gripped my arm. 
Two uniformed Chevy Chase police officers stepped off the elevator into the hall. My hands began to shake, and I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. This was not good. I tasted bile in the back of my throat and reached for Jodi's hand.

The older of the two officers, Sergeant Potter, flipped open his badge and produced his identification. I detected Old Spice. A tire-like belly puddled over his belt. "Ma’am . . . um . . . ma’am," he nodded between us. “Which of you is Mercedes Warren’s mother?" 
"I am. I’m Adele Warren. Where is Mercedes?" My heart pulsed through my thin cotton gown and robe.

Across the hall, Margaret Gillespie’s condo door opened a crack, most likely so she could hear what was happening.

Sergeant Potter cleared his throat, rocked on his heels, and looked at his shiny patent-leather shoes. "There has been a shooting at the fairgrounds in the park. May we come in? We would prefer not to do this in the hallway."

"Of course.” I stepped away from the threshold, allowing them to enter the hardwood foyer. "Tell us, please, he shot her, didn't he?" I told myself not to freak out—to stay calm. 

Officer Andrew Thames, taller and younger than Potter, appeared to be holding back anger that flashed behind dark gray eyes. "It wasn't a he. Your daughter was the shooter. Another policeman took her down. She has been transported to Sibley Memorial Hospital."
"The shooter?" I whispered. I shook my head. "Mercedes? No, no, that can't be right." My knees went weak beneath me. Jodi and Sergeant Potter lunged forward, catching me before I hit the floor. They maneuvered me to the white leather sofa under the bay window.
Jodi pulled me toward her, straddling the arm of the sofa. Her fingers dug into my clavicle as she clenched my shoulder. "Is she okay? You said she was shot? We need to get to the hospital right away and see our daughter."

The two officers exchanged a glance. I’d seen that "Oh great—lesbians." look hundreds of times over the last seventeen years, but we didn't have time to worry about their political views on gay marriage.

"We'll drive you. We have some questions to ask you on the way." 

I don't remember changing clothes, but we made it into the squad car fully dressed. Jodi was quiet. I babbled incessantly.
Officer Thames got behind the wheel, while Potter sank into the passenger seat. We stared at them through wire crossbars. "Do you keep weapons in your home, Mrs. Warren?"

"No, we don’t have guns in our house. That's absurd."

"Where would Mercedes get a gun? What about her father?"

Jodi gave me a sideways glance. I shook my head at her. "Mercedes doesn't have a father. Tell us about Mercedes. Are you sure she's okay?"

Sergeant Potter nodded at the radio that was flooded with voices calling locations and codes I didn't understand. I felt myself coming unglued. "Please, is she okay? You are not answering me." The octave rose with each syllable.

"Ma'am, we know you're upset but yelling at us is not going to help. We don't know the condition of your daughter. She was alive when they put her in the transport."

Jodi reached across the seat and took my hand. I squeezed it until she winced. We reached the hospital and rushed into the emergency waiting room, calling Mercedes' name. It was a mass of confusion. People crowded the area, rushing in and out of the swinging doors marked "Emergency." Dozens of people were crying, and young people hugged one another as we rushed by. A stout nurse pointed us in the direction of the ICU, to the right of Emergency. 

"Where is she? Where is our daughter?" I cried as I dragged Jodi by the hand down the hallway. A tiny man in surgical scrubs with a stethoscope around his brown neck approached us with a clipboard in hand.

"Are you Mercedes Warren's mother?" He looked between us with the same level of confusion the police officers had at our apartment. 
"I am . . . well, we both are. I am Adele Warren. This is my wife, Jodi Warren. Where is Mercedes?"

"I'm Dr. Pachi. We have prepped her for surgery. She has a gunshot wound to the chest that punctured her lung and we need your permission to operate. She is in serious condition but if we can get the bullet out and repair her lung . . ."

"Of course. Please, save our daughter." I scribbled my name on a form that was a blur of words, and returned the clipboard. Dr. Pachi disappeared behind a curtain. Seconds later, we watched them wheel Mercedes down the hall. I ran after the gurney, trying to get a glimpse of her. Her already pale complexion was ghostly white; an oxygen mask covered her face, and plastic drip bags of blood and saline hung from the rack attached to the gurney. I barely brushed my hand over hers before she was gone.

Jodi stood planted in the same spot as when the doctor first arrived. A line of mascara trailed down her right cheek, her left smeared in black where she wiped tears into her blond hair. 

There was nothing to do but wait. An old man sat hunched in the corner of the waiting room, snoring, his mouth gaped open, and saliva dripped from his chin onto his faded work shirt with Ben stenciled on the pocket. On the faded leather sofa, a distraught woman with a prayer shawl over her shoulders clutched the hands of a bearded man, a yarmulke pinned to his gray head.

"Our baby. Why would someone shoot him?"

He patted her hand and shook his head. "He'll make it. Be strong, Sarah." 

"What is your son’s name?" Jodi asked the couple.

"Levi. Levi Jarrett." 

"I am so sorry. Was he one of the people shot at the fairgrounds?" My heart broke for this woman. I prayed she did not ask if my child was also a victim. Is she? Isn't she also a victim in some way?

"He is a good boy, a straight-A student. He sings like an angel. He recently made cantor at the synagogue." The woman broke down and sobbed, covering her face with the shawl.

On the TV in the upper corner of the room, Melanie Myers was updating the public on the most recent news. 

"We are now receiving information that the shooter was a female student. Yes, it is confirmed. The shooter is a teenage girl. Nine shots were fired. The unconfirmed number is five fatalities and four injured: five adults, three teenagers, and one child. It is still pandemonium at the fairgrounds and we are trying to obtain accurate details. It appears she was the lone shooter. Please stand by."

The screen switched to the taped footage of the park taken from a news helicopter. Thousands of people were streaming out of the area, bottlenecked by the circle of floats and cars. The grassy area was swarming with police and emergency personnel. Some of the students from the high school marching band had dropped their instruments and run, leaving trombones and trumpets dangling off the bleachers and piled on the trampled grass. The camera zoomed in on a dozen police searching the grounds, weapons drawn. To the left of the bleachers someone was administering CPR to a young girl with light brown hair. I recognized the jean jacket and cobalt-blue skinny jeans. I gasped and had to look away. 

Shaking his head, Dr. Masters, the ER resident doctor, approached the couple on the sofa. "I am sorry." He patted the woman's arm. 
She wailed in anguish, and the man rocked in his seat, clutching his stomach and reciting what I assumed to be prayers in Yiddish. 
I could not stay in that room with those mourning parents. We quietly slipped into the hallway to give them privacy. Later, we saw them follow the doctor down the hall to say goodbye to their son.

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