Sample text for Alone at night / KJ Erickson.

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A door with height charts running either side of the frame is a door you should think twice about walking through.

Not that anybody does.

The last thing people going into a convenience store think about is that they've just got up close and personal with the possibility of real trouble. The kind of trouble their car alarms and home-security systems aren't going to help them avoid.

Marshall Bahr thought about trouble every time he went into a convenience store. He knew what every law enforcement officer knew: anytime a guy walked into a convenience store with a gun, anybody else in that store was one wrong move away from injury if you were lucky or death if you weren't.

Mars did more than think about trouble when he went into a convenience store. He thought about how lousy convenience-store security systems were. Not enough security cameras. Crummy video quality. Inadequate lighting. No hidden panic systems wired to
police dispatchers. No security cages for employees.

And his personal favorite. A convenience-store clerk working alone at night.

Just the thought of a convenience-store clerk working alone at night made Mars grind his teeth, made bile rise in his throat.

He was counting on that bile in his throat to give him the energy he needed to be an effective cold case investigator. Energy that had been missing since he'd left his job as a special detective in the Minneapolis Police Department and joined the State of Minnesota's
Cold Case Unit.

After all, it had been a convenience-store murder his first day on the job as a uniformed patrol officer that had begun his career and that had confirmed for him that law enforcement was a job worth doing.

He thought about that for a minute. About how it had felt years ago to solve that case. It hadn't just been about solving the case.

Just as much, it had been about Hannah Johnson.

Three hours and forty-three minutes into his shift on his first day as a sworn officer, he'd gotten a call to a convenience store. Robbery in progress.

What he remembered about that call was until that moment, there'd never been a time in his life when he'd been more conscious of his body. Of how hard his heart was pumping, of how hyperalert his senses were. Most surprising, how unafraid he'd been.

It was obvious when he'd pulled the squad car to an abrupt stop in the convenience store's parking lot that the robbery in progress was now an after-the-fact event. A half-dozen people, some crying, milled around outside the store. One heavyset woman came at the squad car like a banshee.

"She been shot, you hear me? You get in there, now!"

The convenience-store clerk's body was behind the counter. Mars could hear the ambulance sirens behind him as he knelt next to the woman. He'd put his hand at her neck, knowing before his fingers touched the skin he'd find no life. He lifted his gaze and found himself looking level into the eyes of a little girl.

Hannah Johnson was, in her own words, eight years and three days old. The convenience-store clerk was her babysitter and had taken Hannah with her while she worked what turned out to be her last shift as a SuperStore clerk.

Never mind that the shift was from eleven o'clock at night until seven the next morning. This was not the time to start making judgments about the way people lived their lives, especially about the way kids got tangled up in the way adults lived their lives.

Hannah Johnson had been sitting on a box behind the counter, reading a book, when the shooter had entered the store. Sitting on that box, where she'd been unseen, had probably saved her life.

Mars called Child Protection for somebody to come out until they could locate Hannah's family. He asked a woman who'd come into the store to sit with Hannah until Child Protection showed up, then he'd gotten Hannah an Orange Crush out of the cooler.

Department policy prohibited interviewing a minor without a guardian present, so before Homicide arrived and as the Crime Scene Unit collected evidence, photographed and measured the scene, Mars had started to interview other witnesses.

This did not go well. He wasn't getting any consistent stories or useful descriptions.

All the while, he could feel Hannah's eyes on him.

As a child protection worker took Hannah by the hand, Hannah and Mars made eye contact again. Mars hesitated. It made sense to leave talking to Hannah to the Homicide suits. Probably tomorrow instead of tonight.

"Just a minute," Mars had said, acting against the grain of what made sense.

He'd walked over to Hannah, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Hannah, can you tell me what you saw?"

The Child Protection worker had pulled Hannah closer to her. "Not now, Officer. This has been traumatic. Give us a call in the morning..."

Hannah said, "I know. I can tell..."

Mars looked at the Child Protection worker, who looked down at Hannah.

"You don't have to, honey. Not now. You can talk to the policeman later."

Hannah said again, "I know. I can tell..."

She could and she did. She described the shooter's height relative to a marketing display next to the cash register. She described the part of the gun that had been visible over the countertop. She described a tattoo on the shooter's wrist.

"When he ran out," she said, "I went to the front door and looked. It was a tan car that had a big dent on the trunk. The numbers on the car were FXL six-one-three. I couldn't see which state."

Hannah Johnson had gotten a second can of Orange Crush for the road. She'd earned it. Everything Hannah Johnson told Mars held. They arrested the shooter in less than twenty-four hours.

All these years later, his first day on the job stood as the most satisfying, gratifying twenty-four hours in Mars's professional life.

Mars had stayed in touch with Hannah Johnson, always feeling hopeful about the human condition after he'd seen her or talked to her. Hannah's mother was available on an unpredictable basis and Hannah's uncle, with whom she'd lived when Mars had met her, had problems of his own. Hannah spent a substantial part of her life after Mars had met her moving from one relative to another, with occasional pit stops in foster care.

Mars kept track of Hannah through Child Protection Services, and when those checks revealed that she'd moved to another shirttail relation or a new foster home, he'd call her at the new home. And he always, "always," sent her birthday cards. Mars wanted to be sure that wherever Hannah Johnson was, she knew that there was one adult in her life who stayed constant and who thought she was a special kid.

Later, when Mars began working partners with Nettie Frisch, Nettie had asked him who he was writing the birthday card to. So he'd told Nettie the story about his first day on the job.

"How do you know when her birthday is?" Nettie had asked.

"Because," Mars said, "it was three days before my first day on the job. When I asked her how old she was, she said, `Eight years and three days.' Easy to remember."

Every once in a while, Nettie would ask him, "How's that kid--Hannah Johnson? How's she doing last you talked to her?"

The answer was that the circumstances of Hannah's life went up and down. Mostly down. None of which had prevented Hannah from graduating from high school with honors.

Hannah Johnson had been a great start to a career in law enforcement.

Copyright (c) 2004 KJ Erickson

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Bahr, Mars (Fictitious character) Fiction, Police Minnesota Minneapolis Fiction, Minneapolis (Minn, ) Fiction, Missing persons Fiction, Witnesses Fiction