The hollow clank of the holding cell's iron door locking into place sounded much better on the other side of the bars. To Esme, taking her seat on one of the cell's wooden plank benches, it sounded like the echo of a gunshot - or perhaps the echo of a memory of a gunshot, of a 9mm bullet fired from a Glock, of her finger on the trigger, of the laser sight pinpointed at Hooper's forehead, crinkled in childlike confusion.
This was not how the evening was supposed to go down.
She and Tom had made sure local law enforcement were stationed at every egress to and from the sports bar. It had taken the two agents a little over thirteen days to match Hooper to the murders and another three days to track him to the sports bar, and they were going to allow him exactly the same opportunity for escape he had offered the six young girls: none. Yes, the takedown was going to be at night, and yes, the sports bar had its usual rowdy crowd of frat boys (and ex-frat boys), but, as Tom often reminded her, waiting for the perfect time and the perfect place was best left in the hands of perfect people, and raise your hand if you're perfect.
She took a position at the bar. Tom meanwhile wandered his way into a pool game and proceeded to hustle two hairy-knuckled psych majors of all the cash in their alligator-skin wallets. All the while, Esme shook her head in amusement and sipped her virgin cranberry daiquiri. She knew that, all the while, as ball after ball banked into pocket after pocket, Tom was keeping an eye on Hooper, who sat alone at a table and was gobbling a fried steak, but far be it from something as trivial as the capture of an interstate spree killer to deter a veteran special agent from enjoying a little fun. Plus it did help him blend in. She, on the other hand, spent the next twenty minutes politely shrugging off one advance after another. The natives were getting restless. Christ, how long did it take a man to finish a steak?
And could this jukebox please - for the love of God - play something other than loud, proud Toby Keith? She considered strolling over and sliding a dollar bill into the machine. She also considered whipping out her 9mm and popping two rounds into its neon pink belly. But she did neither. She remained on her stool and sipped her virgin cranberry daiquiri and counted the seconds until Hooper paid his check and made his way to the door and her first active case as a field agent in the FBI came to a tidy conclusion (due in large part to her deductive sleuthing, thank you very much). Truth be told, she was impatient for new puzzles to solve. For all intents and purposes, in her mind, at least, Hooper was already over.
It was when he got up to go to the men's room that everything went to shit.
With some sixteen armed and armored police officers standing at the ready outside the sports bar, Tom and Esme's task was relatively simple: keep an eye on the prize. It was Esme's additional duty to report any movement into the clear com piece taped to her left wrist so as to prepare the sixteen armed and armored police officers for The Moment. When Hooper sidled toward the men's room, she dutifully reported the news to her wrist. However, the babble of the Friday night crowd - not to mention the bleating of Toby Keith - must have rendered her words incoherent because the basso profundo voice of the SWAT team captain thundered from the com piece in her left ear, asking her to repeat. Several days later, when the audiotape of the takedown was replayed, it was obvious that the real fault lay not the Friday night crowd's babbling or in Toby Keith's bleating but in the sheer fact that Esme, novice that she was, simply spoke too quietly.
Unfortunately, upon repeating the news to her left wrist and thus to the anxious SWAT team and to Tom Piper, his earpiece invisible even to the college boys he was ball-busting, Esme remedied her initial error and repeated the news - "Suspect heading to men's room" - very, very loudly. Even more unfortunately, though, was the fact that the song on the jukebox had ended a second earlier. Even more unfortunately than that, though, was the fact that a busboy had, simultaneous to the song ending, dropped a stack of plates, momentarily silencing most of the sports bars' conversations and all eyes turned to him and the mess of shattered porcelain on the maplewood floor. This silence usually would have been punctuated by a round of neanderthal-like jeers and raucous applause, all at the clumsy busboy's expense, but instead, instead, everyone heard: "Suspect heading to men's room."
And everyone included jowly Mr. Hooper, age 42, who very quickly surmised, as he was the only person there heading to the men's room, that the news report was about him. That was when he grabbed the waitress by the throat. Or perhaps he grabbed the fork first and then the waitress. In giving her report, several hours later, Esme was unclear about this particular series of events. Either way, the man had a hostage, and the hostage, who couldn't have been older than eighteen years-old and was still wearing braces for Christ's sake, had four metal prongs poking at her fat blue jugular vein.
"Let her go, Hooper!" cried Tom. His well-oiled .45, which had been concealed in an ankle-holster, was already out and aimed and he had a clear shot at Hooper's right shoulder, which was not blocked by the waitress's lithe body and which, if struck, would force the bastard to drop the fork, clenched as it was by his right hand.
Hooper glanced from Esme, who just now was retrieving her pistol from her purse, to Tom, and then to the jukebox as it launched into its next county-western dirge.
"Do it, Hooper," Tom said. "I really don't want to kill you and you really don't want to die. Just let the girl go. Right now, it's the easiest thing in the world."
Hooper's entire face drooped in thought and he may very well have let the girl go, but then Esme's laser sight, finding its way to the man's forehead, caught him in the eye and distracted him from his own common sense and his brow furrowed in confusion and the fork began its push into the waitress's bare neck and that was when Esme pulled the trigger.
The subsequent events occurred rather quickly. Sixteen SWAT officers, alerted by the gunshot, poured into the sports bar. Tom scampered over to the waitress, who, like Hooper, had collapsed to the maplewood floor like a stack of porcelain dishes - except oh-so-very silently. Her neck bled out, but Tom stopped the wound with a gaggle of paper napkins and, with a glance to Esme, who remained ten feet away, a mere arm's length from her bar stool, he informed her by the very relief in his eyes that the girl was going to be OK.
Esme could hardly say the same for herself.
And so a corpse was zipped up in a body bag and witnesses were cordoned and interviewed and official reports were recorded and asses were chewed and it was back at the local station-house, just shy of 6am, that Esme had her first chance since the shooting to speak to Tom.
"I fucked up," she said.
He gave her a once-over, poured himself some coffee from the machine, and replied, "Mm-hm."
"At least the waitress is going to be fine, right?"
She bit her lip to keep from crying. "How bad is this going to get?"
"I wouldn't worry about it."
"Really?" She felt the tension in her back uncoil ever-so-slightly. "Are you sure?"
"That I wouldn't worry about it? Yeah. But you're going to worry about it the rest of your life. That's just a fact. I want to show you something."
He wandered over to one of the cops on duty, whispered in the woman's ear, and then let her lead him toward a door in the back. He turned to Esme and waved her to follow them, and follow them she did. Their path ended at the kennel of holding cells in the rear of the station-house. All the cells were empty save for a few boozy vagrants who were napping on cots. This was not a large town. The female police officer unlocked one of the empty cells and stepped back.
"Go ahead," said Tom to Esme. "Have a seat."
Esme blinked. Hadn't he just said - or at least implied - that the shooting had been clean, that there wouldn't be repercussions? When an agent discharged his or her firearm in the line of duty and the resulting action ended up with a loss of life, the agent was temporarily assigned to desk work, not...this. My God, did Tom think this was a homicide?
Tom rested a hand on her shoulder. "I never had any kids, so I don't know what kind of father I would've been. Probably God-awful. My own father liked to smack me with the backside of his hand so his knuckles could leave imprints on my jaw. He was a funny man, my pop. But the worst punishment he ever gave me was when he sent me off to my room. Go to your room, Esme. I'll come get you when I think you're ready to return to the good graces of our fucked-up little world."
Esme again swallowed her tears. She had never felt so ashamed or in need of love as she did in that moment. Then, for a moment, right before Tom turned to walk away, she noticed four evenly-spaced dents just below the five o'clock shadow across his left cheek. She sat on the wooden plank bench and closed her eyes as the holding cell's iron door shut with the clank of a gunshot.