December 11, 2008

A shot in the dark

    It's well after midnight at the sheriff's office when the shift lieutenant gets a call that a fugitive wanted for murder and armed robbery is at home visiting his wife. The lieutenant looks around for backup.

  At this hour there are only two possibilities: an investigator reviewing his case files, and a deputy coroner sipping stale coffee. Deputy coroners, as a rule, are commissioned as state constables, giving them arrest powers and the authority to carry firearms.

  "Let's go," says the lieutenant, heading out the back door to the parking lot. He fills in the two men on the nature of the call: "This guy's a real bad dude. He shoots people just for fun."

  Twenty minutes later the lieutenant's unmarked car turns off the highway onto a dirt road. Headlights are turned off. "The house is a mile down this road," the lieutenant says. "Let's be real quiet and not spook this guy."

  He stops the car about 100 yards from the house. The three men walk the rest of the way, hoping to surprise their man.

  There are no lights on inside the shingled house, but a near-full moon lights up the countryside. There's no vehicle anywhere around. The lieutenant walks back to the patrol car and drives it off the road and behind a clump of bushes.

  The three officers walk back up to the house. It's 3:00 a.m. "We'll wait it out for a couple hours," the lieutenant says. At first they are quiet, but as time wears on they get restless. The men swap jokes, laugh, and carry on — but always with an eye and an ear cocked toward the dirt road. Still — nothing.

  "How about if I go for pizza and Coke," the investigator says. The lieutenant puts his finger to his lips. "Shush. Nobody's going anywhere."

  Three men are sitting on the ground side-by-side under the moonlight — almost asleep in the quiet.

  The deputy coroner, about to die of boredom, suddenly lets out a great blood-curdling yell and fires two shots into the ground six feet away.

  The other two cops jump nearly out of their skins. They figure it's an ambush, grab their weapons and dive for cover. The deputy coroner can't stop laughing. But he's the only one laughing. The bad guy is a no-show! The lieutenant's incident report makes no mention of gunfire. The deputy coroner is never again asked to come along as backup.

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